Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #10: Improving government services with GOV.UK step by step navigation

Government Digital Service Podcast #10: Improving government services with GOV.UK step by step navigation

June 28, 2019

Listen to this month’s episode of the Government Digital Service podcast to hear about the award winning step by step work on GOV.UK. Kate Ivey-Williams and Sam Dub, from the GOV.UK team, explain why and how the navigation was created and its impact on users. 

A full transcript of the episode follows. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re going to be speaking about the award-winning ‘Step by Step’ navigation on GOV.UK. This is a navigation that breaks down complex tasks into simple steps. The navigation follows you throughout your journey, indicating what to do now and next. It also shows you what previous steps you might have missed. For example, getting a provisional driving licence before booking a driving theory test. To tell me more about this is Kate Ivey-Williams and Sam Dub, so, please, could you introduce yourself and tell me what you do here at GDS, for Kate first?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes, so I am Service Design Lead for GOV.UK. That basically means my work focuses on 2 things. It’s looking at how the platform of GOV.UK helps government to deliver services, but also looking at how the GOV.UK programme, as a group of people, are helping government to improve those services.

 

Laura Stevens:


Sounds great, and Sam?

 

Sam Dub:  


I’m a product manager working on GOV.UK. For the last couple of years, really, I’ve been focusing on navigation of GOV.UK. That means, really, making things easy to find, but also, with ‘Step by Step’ navigation, making things easier to do. Ways that we can join things up so they make sense for users is a key part of that.

 

Laura Stevens:


Okay. Your team won a prestigious design award last month. That was from D&AD. How did you feel when you found out about that?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Really exciting. I think it’s like you spend a lot of time looking inwards at government and having a strong belief that you’re working on the right things and doing things that make sense, but it’s very nice to get recognition from people outside of your world of work, and peers across the industry, that the thing that you’re working on is a good thing and that it feels meaningful beyond just the context that we’re working in.

 

Sam Dub:


I think one of the things that’s really nice about it is it’s an iteration on GOV.UK. A lot of the work there are like re-launches or rebrands, and this is like a continuation of some of the thinking that’s been around GOV.UK since the beginning. It feels like a kind of validation of a process of iteration, like week by week, month by month, we’ve got to this new place. It’s quite exciting.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


I was a bit unsure, actually, whether we would win an award, because obviously GOV.UK has won 2 awards previously, mostly focused on… They were awards for content design, and I was unsure whether entering this they would just see it like, “GOV… It’s just the same thing.”

 

Laura Stevens:


You’re just getting all the awards, aren’t you?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


They’re just, “What do you want another award for?” But we entered it in a different category and I think they did understand that we’re trying to achieve slightly different things. Driven by the same principles, we’re now focusing on doing slightly different things and working in slightly different ways than we did 5 years ago, or whenever we won the previous awards.

 

Sam Dub:


It built on that work. The early achievement, the big achievement of GOV.UK in its first year was just getting everything together in the same place. That’s something that Neil Williams was talking about on… I think it was the first or second episode of the podcast.

 

Laura Stevens:  


Yes, the first podcast; yes.

 

Sam Dub:


He was leading that work. Just getting all those departmental websites shut down and all that content moved into one place was a huge achievement. Then there was a, kind of, follow-on challenge for that, which was like, “How do we make this stuff findable and usable, and how do we join this content up and these transactions up across departments?”

We’re able to do what we’re doing because of that work that came before us, but it follows in a, kind of, tradition of ideas of, like, joining things up for users, making things easy, like making sure that users don’t have to understand the structure of government in order to find what they need.

 

Laura Stevens:  


This is what I was going to talk about, like how ‘Step by Step’ came about. What was the genesis of it?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


It’s, kind of, the reason that I joined GOV.UK. I was one of the first service designers to join GDS as an organisation. Lou Downe joined first and established service design as a profession within GDS, and then they brought in myself and another person. I joined GOV.UK with the idea that, “Okay, you’re going to be on GOV.UK and you’re going to think about how does GOV.UK do services?” 

I’ve been at GDS for about 4 years now, and it took, probably, about a year and a half before we could kick off this work in any meaningful way, because we had to still do quite a lot of technical work on GOV.UK, bringing all the content into one place so that we could do consistent universal navigation across all content. There was quite a lot of technical debt to deal with. 

It’s been ticking along and our ideas have been evolving, a year and a half ago, we were able to really kick this work off in earnest and think about how all of those ideas translate into something actual, real.

 

Sam Dub:  


Yes, and it’s such an attractive idea. For me, somebody who didn’t have all that background, coming to it at that point, it was just such an exciting idea – the idea that we could have, like, a single page that would tell you everything you needed to do in order to get something done, something big, and chunky, and meaningful, like learning to drive, or starting a business, or employing someone, these complicated processes. If, as government, we could just create one page that’s well structured and explains exactly what you need to do, that’s such a valuable thing for users, for citizens. That was a really exciting idea to just pick up and run with.

 

Laura Stevens:


Why did you pick the first one, which was ‘Learning to Drive’? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


There was quite a lot of previous work done in that area. When Lou first joined GDS, they went off to Swansea, and worked a lot with DVLA, and were looking at a lot of the driving services, so we had quite a historical knowledge base in that area and already had quite a good understanding of that journey. 

From that respect, it was quite a good one to pick up, because we had stuff we could build on, but it also is a journey that’s quite simple, and linear, and quite easily understood.

 

Sam Dub:


I think it’s, kind of, exemplifies what this pattern, this design pattern, this new feature on GOV.UK is for, in that inside ’Learning to Drive’ you’ve got a load of guidance. You’ve got stuff like… The ‘Highway Code’ is probably the best-known part of that. You’ve got all these kinds of transactions you need to do with government. 

Before you start, you’ve got to get a provisional driving licence. That’s a transaction with government. Then, at some point in that process, you’ve got to do your theory test. You’ve got to take some driving lessons. Then you’ve got to take your practical test. 

You’ve got to do those things in the right order, like you can’t take a driving test until you’ve got your provisional licence. So, it was just a really nice kind of model for how we could start organising that content in a simple sequence that made sense to people, to make that easier.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


‘Learn to Drive’ had quite a good mix of things across it that we could start testing the pattern slightly about how it could deal with real processes that a user’s going through, not just the government processes.

 

Laura Stevens:


I was actually going to talk through the design of that, because it went through quite a few rounds, iterations. 

Sam Dub:


Like with most things, we start in identifying a need. We knew that we needed to join up transactions and guidance, because you need both. You need to engage with the guidance, and you need to do these transactions, so we started developing prototypes for how we do that. 

As with most things in GDS and GOV.UK, we start with user research. That’s bringing in people who are in the process of learning to drive. We put these early prototypes in front of them and we really asked them just to go through the… To engage with them naturally, as if they were in their own homes, and do the parts of the journey where they were at, at the moment. 

That allowed us to evolve a design over… I think it was, in the creation of the original pattern, about 10 rounds of user research. Each time, we were bringing a slightly different prototype, like building on the learnings and insights from the previous round, and really honing this design pattern to a point where users felt comfortable with it. It felt natural, it felt intuitive to them.

Laura Stevens:


You also went up to Neath, as well.

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
To the Digital Accessibility Centre. Yes, that was good. We went a whole crew of us. We were, like, the back end, front end: me, the designer; you, the product manager; user research. We all went along and we tested it with, I think, around 10 people who were in the Digital Accessibility Centre who have varying access needs, whether that be cognitive ability or sight, or perhaps it’s… I think one of the people we tested with has ADHD [Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. There were quite a lot of different access needs that we tested against, and that was… It was such an interesting day, yes.

 

Sam Dub:


Yes, we learnt tons from that, and that directly translated into improvements to the designs that make it work better – for everybody, actually. 

 

Laura Stevens:


Now there are 41 ‘Step by Step’ lives. You’ve got quite a range. You’ve got, obviously, the first one, ‘Learning to Drive a Car’, ‘Getting Married’, ‘Getting Divorced’. On a slightly lighter note, you’ve got ‘Reporting Treasure’, as well.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes. 

 

Sam Dub:


Yes.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


My favourite.

 

Sam Dub:


For the metal detectorists out there, if you find your Anglo-Saxon hoard, unfortunately you have to tell the government about that. You can’t just keep it and so that’s a ‘Step by Step’ process. It’s about, like, we deliberately picked early on these wildly diverse types of processes from, like, something really emotionally taxing and legally complicated, like divorce, and then something like, if you find buried treasure or the cargo of a shipwreck, you have to tell government about that. We were testing to make sure that this pattern could handle all these different kinds of interactions that people have to make with government.

 

Laura Stevens:


How did you go about creating these step by step?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   


We’ve developed a bit of a standardised process now where we’ve now got enough traction with government that in the early days we were going out to departments and saying, “We think your thing would work really well as part of this user journey thing that we’re doing on GOV.UK. You don’t really know what it is yet, but we’d love to give it a go. Can you be our alpha partners?” to a point where we’ve now got enough traction with government that they’re coming to us so we’ve actually got hundreds of ‘Step by Step’ journeys in our backlog that we could build, and now it’s about picking up them, based on prioritisation.

And once we… We have 2 different starting points. Sometimes you have a really tangible idea of what the journey is and who the users are. When you’ve got that idea, you can start building a draft of that journey internally in GOV.UK with our content designers, who are brilliant service designers, actually. They interrogate the content on GOV.UK and start mapping out a draft of this thing. 

Then, alongside that, we start working out who are the departments involved? Who do we need to get into a room to go through this journey, validate it, make sure that we are going to be pointing at the right things, in the right order, so that users can do all the things they need to do?

Sometimes you start off with a much more fuzzy service area where you’re not quite sure what journeys should be built in that area, or it’s just it’s a bit complicated. You need to think: how are you going to break that down? 

 

Laura Stevens:


Does that journey happen here at GDS, or would you go out to the departments?

 

Sam Dub:  


It’s generally whatever works for the participants. I think this is, maybe, a thing that, outside government, people are not necessarily so aware of: that, with a journey like employing somebody, that’s how a user sees it in terms of, “Okay, I need to hire someone for my business,” but actually that’s owned. The guidance and the transactions are owned by 5 different departments that could be in 5 different offices, in 5 different parts of the country. 

What’s exciting is getting all those people in a room together and going, “Actually, collectively, as government, we own this thing. We own the journey. You don’t just own your little bit. We all, together, can make the journey of employing someone really simple, quick, seamless.” It’s really exciting getting those people in the room. People are generally really up for that, like they’re enthusiastic about making the whole thing better.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


More often than not, as well, these workshops, it’s the first time that these people have ever met or thought about how their things join up. That’s really one of the key reasons why this ‘Step by Step’ stuff exists. It’s not just about creating a good experience for users who are trying to do things with government. It’s like 20% that, but it’s like 80% getting government to understand their services, and know who else in government they need to collaborate with when they’re thinking about improving those services, and getting them to take ownership of that as a joined-up, cross-departmental group of people.

 

Sam Dub:


That’s what we really hope happens with this stuff, is that when we’re just getting started in terms of, like, we’re at 41 at the moment, there are hundreds of these kinds of services that the government provides.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  
So many – so many. 

 

Sam Dub:


We’ve got a lot of work to do.

 

Laura Stevens:


You’ve been busy.

 

Sam Sub:  


But then once, even for … So, the 40 that we’ve mapped out – and you can go see them on GOV.UK – they’re also just the beginning. Those things are 7 or 8 step processes. It’s really great to have a group of people come together and, maybe, have a think about: “Okay, now we’ve mapped it out and seen it all in one place, actually that’s quite complicated,” like, “This, maybe, doesn’t need to be an 8 step process. Maybe we have a policy goal which is reducing this down to 3 steps.” That as, like, Step By Steps’ as an enabler of, like, transformation and improvement of services is one of our goals for this work.

 

Kate Ivey Williams:


It’s journey mapping, basically, which is like… As a service designer, that’s our bread and butter, is doing journey mapping, because that’s how you understand how everything works and what’s going wrong, but it’s translating that into something that’s, kind of, shiny and people want it. 

 

Laura Stevens:


There have been some really good outcomes, I’ve got some figures, like since launch it’s been used by 10.5 million people. Is that still correct? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
Yes, possibly more because I think that’s the numbers for the overview pages, which are… Within every ‘Step by Step’ journey you’ve got, like, the overview page, which is the journey on one page, but then every page within that end-to-end service will also have the ‘Step by Step’ navigation on. Actually, there are more people using the navigation on the content and transaction pages than they are using the overview pages, so yes.

 

Sam Dub:


Yes, that’s one of the key insights that are shaping GOV.UK, is the fact that users generally start from search, and they land deep in GOV.UK on content, or they might only think about the process in terms of a transaction. They might think about driving in terms of:  “Okay, I’ve got to take a test.” Actually, there’s a load of stuff you need to do before you get to there. It’s about helping users, when they arrive on a piece of content, to go, “Actually, this is part of a 5 step process. Maybe I need to hop back a few steps, do a little bit first, and then I can do this bit.” 

We’re making it clear on the site. You’ll see it looks like a kind of underground map on the right-hand side of webpages. It’s a beautiful, responsive design, so it looks good on mobile, too. It’ll show you exactly, using this kind of underground line metaphor, exactly where you are in that process. 

We’ve seen that in the lab, users telling us, like, “This is really useful. This makes this process seem manageable,” for some things that often don’t, things that people often need, maybe get professional help or have to call and have to get a lawyer to come and help them do it because it feels so vast and unmanageable. Just by breaking it down and saying, “This is what you need to do now. This is what you need to do next,” really, really helps people.

Laura Stevens:


How do you know that people are reading the content and making use of it?

 

Sam Dub:  


I think we start with user research, but then we start looking for data at [site] scale [when we] start publishing things on GOV.UK. One of the things that we developed alongside the ‘Step by Step’ navigation is this new component. You’ll see it at the bottom of every single page on GOV.UK. It’s just got one very short question in a little blue bar at the bottom of the page, and it just says, ‘Is this useful, yes or no?’. It’s a kind of live usefulness vote that we’ve got running on every page of the site. 

This is a common technique across the web. We didn’t invent this, but it gives you a very useful starting metric for what’s working for users and what’s not. It’ll often flag an issue that you then might want to take into a user research lab and look at more in detail: “Actually, what’s going wrong here?” But one of the first signs we had that we were like, “Really on the right track here,” is that the usefulness scores for the new ‘Step by Step’ journeys that we published – the first [set of] ‘Step by Step’ journeys – were way higher than some of the things that they were replacing, and equivalent formats. 

We had, like 80%, 90% usefulness scores, which were great news for us. I think the no prompt, if you say, ‘No, this page isn’t useful,’ you’re prompted to give us a bit of feedback. If one of the ‘Step by Steps’ isn’t working for you, there is this mechanism for people to say, “Actually, this is why. This is the bit you’ve… You’ve missed this bit,” or, “I’m in this circumstance and this doesn’t work for me.” It’s a way of us getting feedback at scale from users, and that’s always where we’re focused. We’re always watching the live performance data of what we’re doing, to make sure that it’s right for the circumstance, that it’s right for where we’ve applied it.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
We know it helps people because we’ve seen, for example, the ‘Applying for tax-free childcare’, once we introduce the ‘Step by Step’ – well, the hypothesis before we built the ‘Step by Step’ was that people were not checking whether it was right for them, or they weren’t checking their eligibility before jumping into the transaction itself to apply. They were using the application process as a bit of an eligibility checker, which is not what it’s built for. 

Because of that, a lot of people were dropping out, or failing, or applying for the wrong thing. After introducing the ‘Step by Step’ navigation, in the analytics we saw more people who were hitting the transaction page but then jumping back to the eligibility guidance, and then coming back to the transaction and going through it successfully because they were going through with confidence that this was the right thing for them. Fewer people were applying for it incorrectly.

 

Sam Dub:


That – those kind improvements, getting people just, like, not jumping into transactions that are wrong for them, filling in the right form – is like, one, it saves users tons of time, and primarily that’s what we care about. The secondary impact of that is that also, in turn, saves government loads of money, like having to deal with forms that aren’t filled in right, or calls to call centres because someone doesn’t understand how stuff [has been]… How a service works. That also costs government money, and civil servants time. So, by making things better for users, it has this benefit of saving government time and money, as well, which is really nice.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


I’m nodding. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Can you give me a step by step to making a ‘Step by Step’?

Sam Dub:

There’s a serious one. As a family, we’ve been talking a lot about lasting power of attorney, and everyone in my family is healthy and good, but my parents are in their late 60s and it’s a sensible thing for people to start talking about and planning ahead. 

So, within, like, family WhatsApp groups and email, people are just pinging around links to GOV.UK guidance, going, ‘Have a look at this. Is this like…?’ Because there’s a different role for the person who is making the lasting power of attorney, and the people who will, essentially, have an obligation to look after that person if something was to happen to their health. 

We’re pinging around guidance, discussing this, and I’m sitting there going, “We should totally do this,” like, “There’s a user need here.” This is complicated. There are decisions being taken. It’s a thing that some people go and seek legal advice about. 

Whilst, as a product manager, I wouldn’t abuse my position to get stuff made that’s helpful to me, there’s an indication that there might be a need there. That’s something that we could do the research to actually see if there really was something there, but I’d love to see that happen.

 

Laura Stevens:


How would you go about doing that if you wanted to create that particular one?

 

Sam Dub:  


In that case, you would look at the parts of the service and the guidance that exists around it. Then you get someone like Kate to come and run this, these workshops that we’ve now got pretty practised at, but Kate can probably tell you what happens.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes, less me and more the content designers, because they are experts in knowing what’s on GOV.UK and how it all fits together. They’re really good. Content design is basically about explaining government services in a really clear way so that people understand them. 

And I think we’ve now got to a point where we’ve got the right balance where we’re taking something in that helps them share their knowledge and helps us to get moving quickly so that we can give them something back quickly that is the results of their collaboration.

 

Sam Dub:


Invariably, something does emerge that’s new and that is a new way of framing something. That is something that no one department could have done on their own.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Exactly.

 

Sam Dub:


We certainly couldn’t have come, arrived with that up our sleeve and said, like, “This is how it’s going to be structured.” It’s a genuine collaborative process where the input of the expertise in the departments about the different parts of those journeys come together to create this thing that is, hopefully, framed in a way that makes sense to users and is how they think about it, rather than how government thinks about that problem.

 

Laura Stevens:


Yes, I was going to touch on that, how you’re making government think about itself as a place that delivers services. It sounds like, [with all] this collaboration, that’s been a key outcome from this.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


There are a lot going on across government to help them think about things in a slightly different way, to help them think about themselves as service providers. Like, the new service standard is really strong on that, and about getting government to think about services and whole problems, and tackling those collaboratively, but I think ‘Step by Step’ is one of the really tangible tools that enables departments to start work on that. It’s the first step on the road, I think, yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:


And I should probably also finish the Step by Step. Once the workshop has been done, what’s the next stage with your service here? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Usually, if we’re going into that workshop with a fairly good idea of the journey and we have that very draft-y thing in the publishing tool, as the conversations are going on with the departments that’s been facilitated by someone from our team, someone else in our team is sitting in the background, updating the draft of that thing in the publishing tool. 

So, by the end of the workshop we can show them the tangible output, a sort of first-draft example of what they’ve been discussing, with the caveat that we need to take that away and do a bit more massaging of the content.

Then the thing gets “2i” internally. That’s a jargon-y term for it gets reviewed by another content designer within GOV.UK. Then we send it out for fact-check with departments. This follows our standard mainstream guidance fact-check process, where it goes to the subject-matter experts within departments, who then say, “Yes, that is factually correct. Go ahead and sign it off.” Or they give us feedback about, “Actually, you’ve misunderstood something there.” 

 

Sam Dub:


I always enjoy when it goes to the lawyers. That’s when you know it’s like… That’s when you know you’re changing stuff, because the lawyers are there to make sure that, in the way that we’re presenting this in a simple way, we aren’t straying from what’s legally correct, and we aren’t misleading people, but we are… Presenting some of these complicated legal processes as a simple one-pager does mean it needs to get read and fact-checked by a lawyer in the process. There is often this wide range of expertise that we need to consult, and people who, in the process of reframing this stuff, we’ve had to consult, but everything’s gone live. At every point, we’ve reached a consensus. When everyone sees it at the end, they go, “Oh,” like, “That’s better.” 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:


Does it go back to that point of, exposing those…? Perhaps the policy challenges that this is what part of the process is.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes. I think sometimes a confusing and complex policy is hidden in guidance that is spread across GOV.UK. When you extract it and expose it in this really simplified view of that thing, you actually realise the policy is complicated or the thing doesn’t make sense, because the policy is complicated. 

Hopefully, that is… Showing them that is the start of a process of thinking: “How can we simplify this, because this is confusing users and this is making work for us, as government, it’s making work for them to try and understand something which should just be simple.”

 

Sam Dub:  


That was really one of the early learnings of this, was that we needed to get the policymakers in the room for those workshops, because often there can be a process where our content designers do a bunch of work and then they pass it over to policy people. Some context is lost there. If you’ve got the policymakers in the room from the start, that’s another kind of collaboration. It’s different departments and it’s different disciplines being there to inform the process.

 

Laura Stevens:


These ‘Step by Steps’ have also been very helpful to the voice assistant work, as well, haven’t they?

 

Sam Dub:  


Yes. This is part of a broader strategy. We sometimes talk about GOV.UK now… Or trying to make GOV.UK understandable to humans and understandable to machines. I sometimes wonder, when we say that, what people are imagining, like some kind of robot overlords.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


Exactly.

 

Laura Stevens:  


Our new user. 

 

Sam Dub:


To be clear, to clear this up on the GDS podcast, not for the robot overlords, one example of what we mean by that is so that our content is understandable to search engines. If you do a search for becoming a driving instructor or learning to drive a car, from a search engine on mobile – actually, this is something that’s gone live in the last month – they’re able to see the… The search engine is able to look at the structure of our content. 

You get, like, this little carousel of steps that appears that you can swipe through. You can jump to: “I’m at step 3 of ‘Learning to Drive’,” like, “I’ve got my provisional licence, so now I’m studying for my test, so I can jump to that.” That’s powered by some mark-up that we’ve added to our ‘Step by Steps’ that makes them easier for machines to read. It’s the same mark-up that powers search that can also power voice assistance, so you can query those ‘Step by Steps’ – or the content within those ‘Step by Steps’ – in the same way.

 

Laura Stevens:


I’ve also seen a figure floating round that there are, like, 400 services you want to do this to. Is that how many, or is it literally just-?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


That’s that finger in the air. I think that’s based off of the amount of mainstream guidance we have, which is it covers the really major, far-reaching government services, but, because ‘Step by Step’ navigation can work across all content on GOV.UK, it means that even beyond those 400, if there are departments who are sitting in some really niche area of government, they can still start using this pattern for something that [might]… Maybe it only has 200 users a year, but they can still start thinking about it and piecing their journey together in the depths of Whitehall content, as well. There’s potentially way more than 400, but that covers some of the really key services that we know we would like to build.

 

Laura Stevens:


What sort of journeys are definitely not ‘Step by Steps’? Like, when you’re thinking, if you’re listening and you’re working on a service, what would be not suitable?

 

Sam Dub:


This is a crude indicator of it, it’s generally stuff you need to do in more than one sitting, like you can’t learn to drive or get married in one web session. It’s going to take a bit longer.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


One day. I think you can in Estonia, probably.

 

Sam Dub:


It will generally be something where you’ve got to read a bit of GOV.UK, go and do a thing in the real world, come back, and then read or do something else. That’s a, kind of, gut-feel indicator of when some navigation that’s going to help people join up those activities is going to help.

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

When I think about the ‘Step by Steps’ I want to build, one of the ones I really wanted to do was what to do when someone dies, because it is these high-emotion, really difficult times of life when the last thing you want to be doing is thinking about government admin. I know they’re a bit depressing, but that’s what motivates me, is to take the pressure off people at those horrible times and make life a little bit easier. 

I think other ‘Step by Steps’ I would love to build would be, like, helping people who are out of work, and tying together all the services and the suite of things in that space that could support them in that time of life, or other things like that. That’s where we can add, I think, the most value.

 

Sam Dub:  


It’s those moments in life where you really value somebody saying, like, “You just do this, do this, do this, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, that’s what motivates us, I think.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Totally, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:


Not adding unnecessary stress or pressure on a highly emotional situation.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Yes. Who wants to think about government when you’ve got all that other stuff on your plate? No-one.

I think it’s about making government much more invisible. Ultimately, people don’t want to think about that. They want to get on with their lives.

 

Laura Stevens:


“Thank you” to Kate, and, “Thank you” to Sam today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify, and all other major podcast platforms, and you can read the transcripts on Podbean. Thank you very much again.

 

Sam Dub:  


Thank you.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Thanks for having us.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #9: An interview with Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith on corruption and the Global Digital Marketplace

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #9: An interview with Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith on corruption and the Global Digital Marketplace

May 30, 2019

In the latest episode of the GDS podcast, senior writer Sarah Stewart talks to Chantal Donaldson-Foyer, Head of Product and Warren Smith, Programme Director about the Global Digital Marketplace. The trio discuss how the Global Digital Marketplace is helping to tackle corruption, a $2.6 trillion problem.

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello, and welcome to the GDS Podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart, I’m a senior writer at the Government Digital Service. I’m in the studio today with two aficionados in the world of government procurement, Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith. Chantal, you’re head of product for the Global Digital Marketplace and Warren, you are the programme director for the Global Digital Marketplace. Welcome to you both.

 

Chantal Donaldson-Foyer: Thank you.

 

Warren Smith: Thank you very much.

 

Sarah: So just to start off, could you tell me a little bit more about your roles, what exactly you do?

 

Chantal: All right. So as head of product of the Global Digital Marketplace, I look after the programme as a whole in terms of our offering and what we’re going to do with the country. So we’ve got teams who are looking after each region and I help the product managers for each of these regions build up their offer and actually deliver it.

 

Sarah: Cool, Warren?

 

Warren: So, I have the easy job, I set the direction, the vision and make sure that we have the senior stakeholder relationships maintained in our partner countries, and that includes with the FCO as well.

 

Sarah: Now, government procurement enthusiasts will know what the Digital Marketplace is – but for those who don’t I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick recap before we move onto talk about your international work. So what is the Digital Marketplace?

 

Warren: The Digital Marketplace is a platform that is available to all of the UK public sector to enable them to buy digital data and technology products and services in support of government transformation.

 

Sarah: And we do that along with the Crown Commercial Service?

 

Warren: Yes, we do, they’re a key partner organisation for us in the Cabinet Office.

 

Sarah: Now, before the pair of you worked on the Global Digital Marketplace you were also on the Digital Marketplace.

 

Warren: Correct.

 

Sarah: I did describe you as aficionados earlier, so I’m going to put this claim to the test, and enrich our listeners understanding, and try and make government procurement even more interesting, with a quiz.

 

Warren: Love it.

 

Sarah: You’re going head-to-head.

 

Chantal: No pressure.

 

Sarah: No pressure. Okay, so this is on the Digital Marketplace. What happens when you open up the procurement market to suppliers of all sizes rather than just big tech companies? I’ve a list of four things that you could possibly pick from.

 

Warren: Oh, it’s multiple choice.

 

Chantal: Okay, yes.

 

Sarah: It’s multiple choice.

 

Warren: You encourage a more diverse supply chain to be involved.

 

Sarah: That’s on my list. Okay, well done.

 

Chantal: You get better value for money.

 

Sarah: That’s correct. It’s happening even in the room as we speak. There’s the air of…

 

Warren: Anticipation? (Laughter)

 

Sarah: I was going for competition. The increasing competition. And also the locations are more diverse.

 

Warren: Of course. Yes.

 

Sarah: Okay, this might be slightly harder. Second question, what was the Digital Marketplace’s total sales figure at the end of March?

 

Warren: £5.7 billion.

 

Sarah: Wow, correct. Okay, can you tell me what is the government’s aspirational target figure for SME spend?

 

Chantal: The target figure is £1 in every £3 to be spent with SME.

 

Sarah: By which date? Bonus question.

 

Warren: 2022.

 

Sarah: Yes.

 

Sarah: Which government launched its own digital marketplace in record time by working with us and using our open source code?

 

Chantal: Australia.

 

Sarah: Correct.

 

Chantal: Yes.

 

Sarah: The bonus question, how many weeks did Australia take to launch its own digital marketplace?

 

Warren: Six.

 

Chantal: Five?

 

Sarah: Five is the correct answer

 

Warren: 5 weeks, good on them.

 

Sarah: I have to say, yes, very good, good job. I’ve got to say, it’s a relief between the pair of you, you both got them right. So I think we’re all up to speed on the digital marketplace, so let’s go global. What is the Global Digital Marketplace?

 

Warren: The Global Digital Marketplace is a programme that’s working in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed to help overseas governments in emerging economies to tackle corruption by transforming their procurement of digital data and technology products and services.

 

Sarah: How did that come about?

 

Warren: It was mainly following the summit that took place in 2016. Where it was felt that there was an opportunity to apply the same approaches that we’ve taken in the UK to open up markets to open up procurement and make it more transparent as a way of helping to tackle closed markets, closed processes, and more opaque processes that are often the breeding ground for corruption so that was really the sort of genesis of the concept that became the Global Digital Marketplace programme.

 

Sarah: The corruption angle is very interesting,how in practical terms is this corruption happening?

 

Warren: So it’s a good question. I think when considering corruption you have to look at the whole system in which corruption is taking place. On the one end you’ve got the very obvious corruption which is where individuals are for personal gain misappropriating public funds, but I think you also have to look on the opposite end of the spectrum where weaknesses within the system could lead to corrupt practices  to take place. So perhaps inefficiency and effectiveness within government processes or the systems, or opacity within those processes, a lack of transparency, these are all opportunities for reform and are often the breeding ground for where the corruption can start to manifest.

I think certainly the Global Digital Marketplace Programme is focusing on designing out opportunities for corruption to take place and focusing on the people involved so that we can help to build capability and increase integrity.

 

Sarah: We spend $9.5 trillion a year, so that’s global government procurement spend, and that’s not just IT, and of that number 2.6 trillion, which is nearly 30%, is lost through bribery or corruption.

 

Warren: Yes.

 

Sarah: So it’s a huge thing that you’re trying to tackle here. How exactly does it work, how did you begin this process?

 

Warren:  So we first engaged with a range of governments that were priority countries for the FCO. This is after we got the endorsement and the backing to actually take this approach. It all really starts by having the conversations with the governments and the supply chains and civil society organisations within those countries to understand what are the barriers, what are the challenges, and equally what are the opportunities for how we can work together.

We’re not claiming that we’ve solved the problem by any means in the UK but we’ve made a start, and an important start, in showing that a different way of thinking and working in – to tackle procurement is – it is possible. We also look to opportunities to how we can learn from other governments as well as sharing what we’ve been able to achieve in the UK.

 

Sarah: I’m really interested in the diplomatic angle here, because – say for example your friend is singing very, very badly, you might not want to tell them directly they’re singing very, very badly but it’s in everyone’s interest for them to get better. How do you approach governments, like what’s your first step, and do you take a different approach for every country, do you go and meet them?

 

Warren: Yes, and that’s a really important point, is not to take a standard one size fits all approach, you have to tailor your engagement approach depending on the context, and, yes, I’ve got loads of friends who are terrible singers-

 

Sarah:  Even in a band?

 

Warren: I know, yes, myself included, that’s why I’m never on the vocals. So very quickly, even though the kind of the starting point for the conversation is around tackling corruption and procurement reform, very quickly the conversations turn to government transformation and public service transformation and greater openness and transparency of government.

So I think it’s really important to see the antithesis of the negative and focus on the positive, because that’s very much where the impact and the outcomes that we want to achieve are associated. Yes, that’s how we shift the conversation to one of the future positive.

 

Sarah: And so for the record, who, which countries are we dealing with?

 

Chantal: All right, so we are currently in five countries, so that’s in Latin America, Mexico and Columbia and South Africa in Southern Africa and Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asia.

 

Sarah: What about the discovery work, so how does that kick off?

 

Chantal: So actually to do the discovery we engaged with the UK supply chain to help us conduct all of the research that was necessary for us to define what the delivery of the programme was going to be. So we worked with four partners who come with us to the country and try and understand what are the opportunities that exist, what current best practices or great examples we could kind of build and grow further, and also what the challenges were in the countries to understand where we could add value and where we could work together, share our experience, see whether that can help them, or not.

 

Sarah: So can you tell me some of the things that came out of that early stage discussion work with the suppliers? What kinds of things were they saying about what they wanted?

 

Chantal: Each of the suppliers had a different area of expertise, and an area that they were looking at in countries across all five countries, and including some of our team and some people from GDS came along to the discovery. So actually over the last five weeks, four weeks, we’ve been working together in workshops to define what we have found, because actually we think that by bringing together all our findings we can come up with a better rationale rather than everyone working on their own, so we’re just currently formulating what our findings are.

I think there are several themes that come out, but overall the Global Digital Marketplace is looking at things beyond just the digital marketplace, so it’s all its associated reforms, looking at the standards and assurance process before contracts are awarded, the spend control process, then how procurements are designed, how contracts are designed, then the assurance of the delivery itself, how data underpins all of that, as well as the capabilities that are available in countries, and so together we’ve reviewed all of that and pretty much in all countries found opportunities at each of these levels I think, and in terms of transparency, an exciting part of that is looking at how we could help these countries share more of their data in the open contracting data standard.

 

Sarah:How were those countries identified in the first place?

 

Warren: So we were provided with a long list of potential partner countries by the FCO, which are priority countries for them in terms of anti-corruption. It was necessary for us to prioritise out of that long list, because we’re a small team to begin with, so we used a range of publicly available indexes to give us a general measure of complexity. Things like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and various others from, like, the OECD and such like, so that gave us a, yes, an overall score which enabled us to put countries into two different tiers, so we focused on the tier one countries effectively.

Why can't the UK government just write a how-to guide and provide some open source code and let a government get on with it?

Chantal: I think part of what we’re trying to do as well is show our way of working, so bringing user-centred design principles as well as our agile ways of working into our delivery so that we can share that with partner countries live, and so that they can really experience it and feel it, rather than just reading something, some nice guidance and some stats about how it makes things better, but actually being there, feeling it, engaging with the users directly is so powerful that no guide would be able to match that kind of experience, and I think that’s why we wanted our delivery to be very much implementation focused because that’s the best way to learn.

 

Warren: I think just building on that, I mean, that’s exactly what we did for Australia as a bit of an experiment in 2016. They could have just come in and taken the code but actually it was the combination of open source code and technical assistance from UK government, in terms of GDS, sending some people from the team to spend the time with them to take the code and to implement, I think that’s what – it was the combination of those things which led to their delivery in just five weeks.

 

Sarah: So how do you work with five countries, like what does your month look like, where are you touch points, how do you meet, how do you collaborate?

 

Chantal: Well, it’s quite hard, especially when you look at it on a map and think about just the time zone problem, it’s a massive challenge for our team, but it’s also really exciting because we get to work together with the overseas Embassies and High Commissions who support us on the ground. Yes, so we do visits every few months in country and then use other tools to be able to talk, stay close.

Warren: We use Slack we use Hang Outs, so even though we are geographically distant and time zone presents a challenge it’s still possible to have a working relationship with a highly distributed team, I think, yes.

 

Sarah: I’d like to talk a little bit about MOUs, Memorandums of Understanding. You’ve just signed some, tell me about those.

 

Warren: Yes, at the beginning of March, Kevin, our director general, signed three MOUs with some not for profit organisations to support Global Digital Marketplace. That’s really exciting. It’s been some time in the making but we’ve got there so, yes, each of those organisations are recognised globally for their leadership, for their skills, for their experience and capabilities, all of which support the strategic direction of Global Digital Marketplace. So

 

Warren: The first is the Organisation for International Economic Relations, or the OIER Which is also the organisation that’s behind an initiative called ‘United Smart Cities’.

 

Sarah: Where are they based?

 

Warren:  Vienna. The second is the Open Contracting Partnership, or OCP, and the third is the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management, or the IACCM. The OIER and United Smart Cities are focused on implementing information communication and technologies to support the delivery of sustainable smart cities. They are active across the globe in a number of cities and they are closely linked to a number of United Nations agencies as well.

The Open Contracting Partnership is an organisation that’s spun out from the World Bank and they developed the open contracting data standard. They are huge advocates and great campaigners for greater transparency in public procurement, and the Open Contracting Data Standard , or the OCDS, is a key element of the Global Digital Marketplace programme delivery, and the third, the IACCM, is a globally recognised organisation that’s focused on building capability and capacity in commercial and contracting.

 

Sarah: What does their signing the MOU mean in real terms?

 

Warren: It gives us the ability to align on common areas of interest. It gives us the ability to identify countries where we have a common interest in and where we’re already engaging, and it also gives us the ability to bring together those – the skill sets of the different organisations and thinking about the collective rather than the individual.

We have a workshop planned in a couple of weeks’ time in Vienna where we bring together all of the organisations, and we look forward to the next 12, 18 months and identifying those opportunities for collaborative delivery. It’s really important that we look at the tangible delivery opportunities that can draw on the individual capabilities of each organisation.

 

Sarah: Where are you in the process now, you’re collecting feedback from the discoveries?

 

Chantal: Currently we are analysing still the findings from - well, we’re towards the end of that, but we’ve done the trips to the five countries, we’ve brought together all the teams that have been doing that, so both client and GDS, and we’ve brought together the findings and now we’re developing the recommendation. This is going to be a kind of a long list, that we’re going back into countries to present and discuss and shape that together with our key stakeholders there what the next phase of delivery is going to look like.

Our next phase is our alpha phase where we want to pilot different types of approaches, so we’re just trying to see what will that exactly look like and also how does that fit in with what the stakeholders in each country want to achieve, and matching that is our next step

 

Sarah: So are you working with just national governments or sub-national governments?

 

Warren: Both, yes.

 

Sarah: How does your approach differ

 

Warren: The engagement approach is consistent. I think the challenges faced are different. In very much consistent with the UK sub-national, are closest to frontline service delivery, so either city or municipality level, and national obviously is trying to take a national view on what to do.

What we’re trying to do is transcend those organisational boundaries, and actually there is a level between that which might be, say, states in which obviously there are multiple cities or districts, so it’s looking at, okay, what are the needs of each of the different levels of government, where are the challenges, and what are the opportunities that we can help to bring together coordination between national efforts and sub-national efforts on the ground.

 

Sarah: Are you on a timer here? What are your target delivery dates?

 

Warren: Ultimately we’re funded until 2022, which is in line with the UK’s anti- corruption strategy, so that’s another 3 years on that current funding envelope, and while we’re taking the long view we’re looking at how we can then break that down into the next 6, 12, 18 months, and always have a rolling view of what our activities are likely to be notching through that time period.

 

Sarah: Will you identify any other places to work?

 

Sarah: Because I saw a map.

 

Warren: There’s always a map.

 

Sarah: I've seen a map and they had some some rather exotic locations, but I saw Bristol.

 

Warren: I wanted to, in that map, I wanted to call out a couple of UK cities. The list to call out is too long on that small map, but initiatives like the Local Digital Declaration and leading local government organisations who are really showing the way in terms of what digital transformation can look like at a local level. Calling those out on the map gives us the ability to bring together stakeholders who are trying to do the same thing in different countries around the world.

So, for example, the profile of Bristol might be very close to a city in Indonesia where they have a similar demographic or they have a similar set of challenges, there could be value in bringing those stakeholders together to share information, share technologies, share approaches, share lessons learned so that everybody can benefit from one another. That’s certainly a really key part of what we’re trying to do, is bring together and form a global community of reformers where procurement transformation is the heart of their digital transformation as well.

 

Sarah: It’s a bit like town twinning for the digital age.

 

Warren: Funny you should say that because that’s exactly how… Yes, digital twins.

 

Chantal: I would add also that we’re seeing really interesting initiatives in some of our partner countries and we’d like to explore the idea of exchanging experiences between them, so it’s not just a UK to another country exchange but really this community is self-organised and has people talking all over the world. That’s the ambition at least.

 

Warren: Absolutely, and it’s multi-stakeholder, it’s multi-directional, so it’s not about, as you say Chantal, it’s not UK pushing out to others, it’s actually this we’ve got a lot to learn from other governments, the flow of information and expertise should be multi-directional and, yes, when you start connecting different regions and governments in those regions , and the UK is kind of convening that, I think that presents some really interesting opportunities.

Yes, so while we’re focused on the Global Digital Marketplace programme as funded by the FCO with an anti-corruption focus, there’s certainly an opportunity to look beyond that and maybe that’s the next phase of our work.

 

Sarah: So what kinds of initiatives have piqued your interests across the globe?

 

Chantal: think the most exciting initiative I came across was probably in Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where we saw that they’ve done some incredible work at mapping the city and mapping different services, so it’s city services across the city so that you could see what was happening where, and also the town planning so this could inform their future policies and interventions, which was just really, really remarkable.

 

Warren: A couple that I have seen. For example, in Malaysia, Selangor State, they have a very bold ambition to be the smartest state in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations by, I think 2026. That’s all about embracing digital civic participation to deliver transform public services, so their Smart Selangor Delivery Unit is one of our key stakeholders in Malaysia. Equally, in Indonesia, West Java province, so the current governor of West Java was the former mayor of Bandung City, Ridwan Kamil, so he’s a very forward thinking, senior leader who understands the role of digital and technology in delivering transformed public services. Again, they’re likely to be a key partner for us.

 

Chantal:Yes, we’ve seen the Colombian procurement body Colombia Compra Eficiente, they’ve published a whole bunch of their data in the Open Contracting Data Standard quite recently so that’s been a really fantastic initiative we’ve seen.

 

Warren: Equally, Mexico are very forward in terms of their embracing Open Contracting Data Standard.

 

Sarah: That’s quite a lot.

 

Warren: Yes, so this is I think what’s exciting, it’s not only understanding the opportunities for what we can do together in a country, it’s what we can learn from other countries where they’ve perhaps been a step or two ahead of the UK.

Chantal: An example in South Africa is that they have a central supplier database, which was developed quite a few years ago, but is actually a really good example of how having data in one place is actually incredibly powerful. Different ministries are essentially able to draw from that to be able to sense check the suppliers that are bidding for their procurements so that’s been a very impressive piece of work we’ve seen.

 

Sarah: In your Indonesian example you touched on leadership, how much of your work is around leadership and culture?

 

Warren: I think that’s absolutely integral to all of it. We have been identifying who are our key stakeholders to lead and sponsor, but also how do we ensure that when we’re working together that they have that vision and the direction and they’re able to bring their teams along with them? There was an article published I think just last week actually in GovInsider talking about the CIO for Malaysia, and she’s fantastic, she’s visited GDS at least once, I think a couple of times, and so when we were presenting to her actually the tables turned quite quickly and she was basically presenting to us about how they’re using GDS standards and approaches as their benchmark for how to deliver their transformation. It makes for a very engaging and compelling conversation when the leaders within the countries are basically saying we want to align around these kinds of principles and practices which then means that we’ve got a really solid foundation for a good conversation and delivery.

 

Sarah: Is it possible to identify any quick wins against corruption? Is it a case of just making contracts really, really simple and then you can, you know, that’s the first step in winning the battle?

 

Chantal: I like that making contracts simple as a quick win, because contracts are certainly a very difficult challenge I think generally in the world of procurement. I think there isn’t really a quick win in tackling something as systemic as corruption, but I think there is something around starting small and choosing a very specific area in a location, in a sub-national government for example, and trying to build that out. Showing how that works, and also building the buy-in of stakeholders across the board that this approach can work. I think it’s not really about quick wins, more about choosing – starting small, testing it out, iterating it and growing it in the long term.

 

Warren: I think that relates also to your question around culture, because the ingrained systemic issues of corruption can often be quite an overwhelming thing to tackle, by demonstrating, as Chantal says, that it is possible to take a different approach by starting small, demonstrating a success, building trust and building confidence and bringing people along with you on that journey and then scaling from there and I think it’s hugely satisfying when you can see the delight in a stakeholder or the users, to see, “Oh my goodness, change is possible,” and people are really looking for that change. So, yes, it’s that approach of incremental and iterative and then scaling from there I think is absolutely key.

 

Sarah:The Global Digital Marketplace is a partnership between GDS and the Foreign Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who does what?

 

Warren: GDS is responsible for the delivery of the programme. FCO, they’re responsible for a broader overarching programme which is called the ‘Global Anti-corruption Programme’. That contains a number of activities of which the Global Digital Marketplace Programme is one. They’re managing quite a diverse portfolio of activities that involve a number of other government departments, some multilateral organisations like the OECD and the UN are involved as well. Our focus and our responsibility is on delivering against the objections that we’ve set which will help to achieve the more broader objectives of the FCO’s Global Anti-corruption Programme.

 

Sarah: Will we continue to engage with suppliers going forward, and if so how?

 

Warren: Absolutely. In exactly the same way as we have done in the UK, the supply chain is an absolutely critical element for our transformation. We would mirror that approach in our engagements, particularly as we move beyond discovery and transition  into alpha we will be reengaging with our supply chain partners in the UK to share the opportunities for how they could work with us to support Global Digital Marketplace delivery over the next 12 to 18 months.

 

Sarah: What will be keeping you busy in the short term?

 

Chantal: What’s keeping us busy is the trips to our partner countries because we’re, as I mentioned earlier, going there to present what we think might be good activities for the next stage and discussing and shaping that with them, so over the next two, three months we’re going to go over different parts of the team, but I think it’s that coordination of who’s going out when that’s currently keeping us busy, and then actually being in country and engaging and running workshops, presenting our findings, that’s really what’s going to be the next, yes, the next phase.

 

Warren: Yes, and that’s not without its complexity because we are engaging with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, the decision makers in the country, the people that we want to partner with in order to support our delivery, and that includes domestic supply chain in country as well as civil society organisations.Trying to line up the right people to gain their buy-in and their support for our plan going forward is absolutely critical. We have to be respectful of their availability so, yes, that’s going to be a diary challenge for us all.

 

Sarah: So you’ve been here since nearly the beginning of GDS’ creation, could you have imagined that the Digital Marketplace would be global?

 

Warren: No, certainly not at the beginning. I think it goes back to – it absolutely goes back to Chantal’s point of the importance and the power of starting small, iterating and then scaling those approaches, which is effectively what we’ve – what we’re doing now, and the fact that the digital marketplace is now being seen by the Crown Commercial Service as a key enabler for their transformation I think is testament to the fact that the successes of what we’ve seen through the Digital Marketplace so far have been recognised, and now we can build upon those things from a domestic UK perspective, and equally the same goes for overseas with the Global Digital Marketplace programme. Yes, it certainly wasn’t the anticipation from day one but nice to see that evolution, yeah.

 

Sarah: Can you tell me about the makeup of the Global Digital Marketplace team, who have you got in there?

 

Chantal: So the Global Digital Marketplace team is growing right now, so we’ve been doing a whole bunch of hiring in the last couple of months and are still in the process of doing that. I’ll talk about what our finished team will look like, but essentially so we’re going to have a product and delivery duo looking after a region, so three, we’ve got three regions, and then we’ve got subject matter expertise on digital and data and technology skills and capabilities, commercial and commissioning, as well as-

 

Warren: Standards assurance.

 

Chantal: Standards and assurance. Then we’ve got also, in our different partner countries, we’ve got delivery support in each of the Embassies or High Commissions who are supporting the delivery on the ground

 

Warren: So that shape is suited to our activity over the next kind of 12, 18 months, isn’t it? We would naturally look to shape and reshape the team if we need to, but certainly the roles that you’ve articulated, Chantal, those are our core civil servant delivery focused roles that we’ve been putting in place.

 

Chantal: Yes, and I would also add to that. We’ve been supported by different teams in GDS as well, so the standards and assurance team have supported us on our discovery as well as the digital data and technology capabilities team. They’ve been crucial at shaping what our discoveries were like and the kinds of things we were investigating, and some of which have – some of who have also joined us on our discovery trips.

 

Sarah: Where can people find out more about your work?

 

Warren: The GDS blog. Yes, certainly the GDS social media channels. We would like to be regularly talking about the work that we’re doing, being open about the work, and once we’ve had an opportunity to share discovery, insights and propositions with our stakeholders in country we’d like to be able to talk about that openly as well, so keep your eye out for that.

 

Sarah: Excellent. Well thank you so much for joining me on the GDS podcast, it’s been a pleasure to learn more about the work that you’re doing

 

Warren: Thank you for having us.

 

Chantal: Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #8 - An interview with GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #8 - An interview with GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington

April 30, 2019

In the latest episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast, we speak to GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington about his time at the organisation and his career so far.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:

So welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS.

For this episode I’m in the slightly unusual position of interviewing my boss, or the boss of the organisation I work for. It’s GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington. Kevin, thank you very much for joining us on this podcast.

Kevin Cunnington:

Thank you for inviting me Angus.

Angus Montgomery:

So Kevin, I’d like to talk to you today about your time in GDS. So you’ve been here for, getting on for three years I think, and your priorities for GDS as we enter the new financial year and what’s coming up over the next year.

But before we get onto all of that, I’d like to talk to you a bit about your time before GDS and before government, because you’ve been a technologist, or involved in digital and technology for your entire career, and you’ve got quite a storied career before you joined GDS.

 

I think first of all, as I understand, you studied computer science and you have a master’s in artificial intelligence, so what first led you to that subject matter, to wanting to study technology and then develop a career in it?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I went to a boys grammar school, well rather dare I say, a stuffy traditional boys grammar school, where you really had a choice of doing the arts or the sciences, so I did the sciences - maths, physics, chemistry and luckily, a bit on the side, general studies.

And I was always fascinated in two areas beyond that, which were computer science and astrophysics. And oddly, at the time, both were equally as bonkers because I had never seen a computer, none of us had. No boy from my school had ever gone on to study computer science, so when I decided that was what I was going to do, I was the first boy ever from my school to study computer science, having never seen a computer [0.01.58].

Angus Montgomery:

If, at the risk of asking a very personal question, and you can answer in general time, what sort of general time are we talking about?

Kevin Cunnington:

1979.

Angus Montgomery:

Right. Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes, I went ‘79 - ‘82.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

So if you’re familiar with the history of computer science, we’d just about invented the BBC Micro in ‘79. But the first real personal computer, the IBM XT80, XT, came out in ‘81. So you know, nobody had ever seen a personal computer.

They existed only as mainframes really in large regional centres that none of us had ever seen. So taking a punt, and doing a degree based on something I’d never seen before, seemed like quite an odd option really. But it’s worked out ok I’d have to say.

Angus Montgomery:

And your master’s as well, I presume at the same...at this sort of time, artificial intelligence was in the very early stages of our understanding. What was it that drew you to that and what was the kind of, what was going on in artificial intelligence then and is it still relevant to what we’re talking about today?

Kevin Cunnington:

No, it was very different then. So you’re right to say, there was very little work in A.I. back in ‘83 when I did my second degree. And we just had this report called the Lighthill report which said, largely it was rubbish and it’ll never work.

So my timing wasn’t perfect but my interest in A.I and computing has always been with the effect on people really and how it kind of works, not necessarily the programming, but the effect of computing - although I do love programming as well. But it was different then, ‘cause we actually used to programme A.I systems by hand.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

In these really obscure languages like Prolog and Lisp, which are based on quite complicated mathematical constructs oddly enough, the last thing you’d expect to be quite natural. And so I spent a whole raft of my master’s degree programming Prolog and Lisp on things like chess playing. My thesis was around, kind of flexible airport selection. So I built this system that learnt that if you couldn’t go to that airport which was your favourite, then you’d most likely pick the next one, and therefore we could offer that as a potential option in the first place.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

So yeah, quite ahead of its time really.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah. And you mentioned, I mean obviously you were involved in writing programming back then, is that something you still do today when you have time or are still involved in?

Kevin Cunnington:

No, because when I started out in programming in the traditional languages like Pascal and C, and I actually come past programming Codebar oddly enough, but my passion was always Prolog and Lisp, and since they’re no longer really around, I just, you know, wouldn’t have the skill set to programme in Java or Ruby nowadays, so I’ve not done any for years really

Angus Montgomery:

But it’s still there, still there, the skills I’m sure.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think I’d like to go back to it when I retire kind of thing.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, go back to early ‘80s artificial intelligence. And then, so after studying you worked for PWC [Pricewaterhouse Coopers], and developed, or pioneered their use of Agile methodology.

Can you tell me a bit more about sort of, again, what Agile methodology was like, and presumably this was sort of mid to late ‘80s, and what was Agile like back then and how does that relate to what we’re doing now and how we use Agile?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I think the kind of crystallising example is I got sent to this regional city in England to help a large insurer try to automate the process of life insurance, underwriting for life insurance. And people had had a go at that in the past and failed miserably because it’s quite complicated. And I was the first person to try it using A.I techniques and it worked, first time in the world it ever worked, and we came out with a programme that could underwrite life insurance quite comprehensively.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

And it was really...so A.I was like user researchers now.

Angus Montgomery:

Right, yeah yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

You used to sit down with people, we used to actually video the experts doing their job and then we used to interactively programme up what they’d told us and we iterated that over time, so very much like Agile is today, lots of user research, lots of interaction, lots of feedback, lots of intelligent challenge.

And then in, I think it was ‘92, PWC shipped me off to their, what they called, their technology centre in California in Menlo Park, to write down everything I’d learnt about doing A.I using Agile. And this I duly did, it took me six months to deposit the whole contents of my mind onto a book, which was actually quite big, but that then became PWC’s global methodology for developing expert systems, A.I systems, using Agile.

And it was broadly what you’d expect to see today. You know we said prototypes are important, you need to understand the scope of what you’re doing, you need to test and learn, you need to do user research and it’s all not changed very much if we’re being brutally honest over the, what’s that, 25 years.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, well it works, so yeah, why change it? And your background, so as well as working at PWC, you worked for various other sort of large organisations, so Vodafone, Goldman Sachs.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes.

Angus Montgomery:

And it covers, your background kind of covers large organisations as well as startups and entrepreneurial work, so you’ve got a, quite a varied kind of work history before you came to the public sector. How do you use that experience in your current role in government and kind of, what are the similarities and differences between that and what you do know?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I think you know, my kind of, original company was PWC, which was a management consultancy. And apparently today, PWC run the best kind of, fast track scheme in the UK, and they probably in fairness to them, did then. And it was really helpful because as a scientist, my ability to write and present and critique, you know, was that of a scientist. So I was taught how to present, I was taught how to write, I was told how to do analysis and that, it turned out to be a really great start in life. And I spent that, broadly best part of a decade, doing A.I systems.

And as people know, in the ‘90s when greed was good and lunch was for wimps, I sold out and went to work for Goldman Sachs in New York running their trading systems. Which when you say it that way sounds slightly mad but all trading systems are written using Agile. So the fact that I knew how to do Agile at scale and quite quickly and quite well, turned out to be quite a big advantage for them and for me.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah definitely.

Kevin Cunnington:

And then as you say, I had a spell as an entrepreneur. Having been a successful entrepreneur originally, I made quite a bit of money and most people know I lost 13 million quid on a venture, which I do say to people, if you meet my wife, please don’t mention it ‘cause she has stopped mentioning it now.

But at the time obviously it was quite traumatic. And then I went back to work for Vodafone as their Global Head of Digital before joining the Civil Service about five years ago now.

Angus Montgomery:

So you joined, so your first role in the Civil Service was with DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] as Director General of Business Transformation, that’s correct I think.

Kevin Cunnington:

It was.

Angus Montgomery:

Can you tell me a bit more about that role and what you were responsible for and what you were doing?

Kevin Cunnington:

So back in the day it was called the Director General for Digital Transformation and my job was really twofold. The overarching part of the job was, how to transform DWP to be fit for digital and you know, as we know, we did that via the Academies, and all the rich picture work that we did in creating a vision. But the really tangible part of my work was helping to recruit, train the digital teams for the big programmes like Universal Credit back in the day. And that’s broadly what I spent the first two and a half years of my Civil Service life doing.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, so it’s kind of, bringing people in and building capability. Those, those two things across the department.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I’ll tell you, the big thing we did was bring in the Academies. Which was not a new idea, it was an idea that we’d used in Vodafone. But in Vodafone, we’d used it to train largely graduates in digital, because even Vodafone couldn’t get ahold of enough graduates.

In the Civil Service when we first tried it, we blatantly took the idea and reimplemented it and I wasn’t sure whether it would work, and this would be one of the big positives and learnings for me that, we’d tried it on graduates, in the Civil Service we were trying it on older people like myself, and it was at all clear to me that older people would respond to being re-trained in digital. But the reality was they loved it because it gave them a whole new lease of life, it made them feel really modern and updated, and they really warmed to it.

And it’s been, some of the big successes, we’ve had people put off their retirement because having been re-trained, they enjoyed it so much, they want to carry on working. Which was, you know, you’d never believe that was true but they’ve been a massive success. We’ve trained 10,000 people now in the Academies over the five years.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant. And when they first started five years ago, was it in DWP?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, 24 Feb 2014.

Angus Montgomery:

Even got the date.

Kevin Cunnington:

It’s my birthday Angus, so it’s hard to forget.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh right, wow. Very fortuitous. And so that, and again the Academy, the idea of that is upskilling people with potentially no digital capability, or no digital knowledge whatsoever and kind of giving them the skills and potential for a new career.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly. When I first joined DWP, we were kind of in that twilight of 2013 in the Civil Service. And I was told DWP, when I think about this now and I was reminiscing the other day, I must have been incredibly controversial because DWP told me they got 300 experts in digital. And after the first few days, I hadn’t met one so I was beginning to get a bit suspicious, so I wrote down as a word cloud, the 50 terms you really need to understand to understand digital and particularly if you like, the GDS version with discovery, alpha and beta. And challenged the whole of the organisation if someone could get 50 like I could, then I would absolutely consider them an expert, and that’s fair enough. And a lot of people came forward and the highest score was 20.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh really? Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah. And you realise actually, we probably are kidding ourselves relative to industry. We’re not where we think we need to be. And at that point, that’s how we kind of came to the academy system. For me, it was always better to retrain our folk even if that was a gamble in the way we described earlier than it was to kind of, you know, put them to one side and hire a whole set of new people who aren’t part of the Civil Service culture. But, and this again is a really true story. When we first trained people, and then put them back into their departments and their host building, people used to say to them, ‘we don’t do it like that around here Kevin’.

So in the end I got this entire building, bit like we are here today, in Leeds. And we commondered the first floor, the ground floor, and we used that to train people in the Academy. Then we commandeered the next two floors for people to go off and do digital programmes. So they were entirely sequestrated from the rest of the business because, if they were put in the business, we had this terrific organ rejection.

And you think about that now, and you think that must have been incredibly controversial that I set up a building to incubate digital.

Angus Montgomery:

To develop this new way of thinking.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, yeah but it’s all true and you know I, again I was reminiscing the other day, I even stopped people who weren’t qualified from going through the Academy from doing digital for a while.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Because we had a number of people who thought they knew, you know ‘cause of the 300 expert thing again, thought they knew what they were doing and they didn’t, so I stopped them and made them get completely trained in the Academy, then I let them crack on.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. And were you seeing, so when people were being trained in the Academy and then going back into DWP and sort of, after this sequestering, were you seeing then the change in the department or the capability building?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think it took, so in DWP over the first 3 years, I think we trained 5,000 people. Because, at peak, we were training 3000 people a year. And it was only through you know, mass re-education if you like, or mass education, that we got to a point where, you know these people who knew about digital weren’t strange folk anymore. They were more you know, the core fabric of the business.

And it still is a fact that 80% of the people who were trained in the Academies are really around awareness of digital, not practitioners for digital, only about ⅕ of the people go on to be practitioners. But the majority of the effort was just stopping people from being worried about it or thinking it was alien or thinking it was different. And eventually critical mass won and we thought digital was part of our DNA, and if you went into DWP today, you’d never consider doing something that wasn’t digital, you would genuinely be digital by default.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. So it was a real culture shift.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, exactly.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah. That’s great. And obviously while you were at DWP, GDS had been around for 2 or 3 years beforehand. What was your kind of relationship with GDS and how were you working with them when you were at DWP?

Kevin Cunnington:

So, GDS invented a construct which, I still think to this day is a really good idea, called Digital Leaders. And it was essentially getting all the heads of digital together on a monthly basis, chaired by GDS. And I was part of that. So I was always part of the kind of family. DWP did have, occasionally, some GDS folk working with us on some of the programmes but relatively small numbers.

I think it wasn’t until about 2015, that the chair of the Digital Leaders changed to be Chris Ferguson and myself. We completely changed the dynamic to say it wasn’t just about the centre but the centre in partnership with a big department, and from there I had a lot more engagement with GDS. Obviously prior to arriving here in GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

I think it was August/September 2016 when you joined.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think it was. Yeah.

Angus Montgomery:

You joined as the first Director General of GDS, and tell me about when you joined, what were your sort of, first impressions. I mean obviously you knew the organisation well, you’d been working very closely with it but actually sort of, coming in the door and sort of, becoming part of GDS, what were your impressions of it?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh it was definitely quite different to DWP, even though, I mean honestly we had absolutely mimicked GDS in DWP in our digital centres by putting up the bunting...you know, really ruthlessly just stealing all the good ideas. But GDS was just fundamentally, purely digital and it was, yeah, incredibly different. It was much more challenging, people were much more open, it wasn’t anything like so hierarchical and it was still kind of like, a big startup back in ‘16 [2016]. And like, you know where it is now in ‘19 [2019] where it feels more like an enterprise.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah yeah yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, it was way different and you know the statistic today in GDS, is 47% of us are in the age bracket of 30-40.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

So that’s quite a lot different from I guess, the general profile of the Civil Service.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunninton:

And particularly DWP. So you really did notice it had much more, yeah, much more youth on its side immediately when you walked in the door.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. And what, and when you joined what were your first priorities for, well yourself and for GDS?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh I think they’ve honestly remained the same. And it’s funny because I had my equivalent from Australia here today to chat, and I was saying, the two bits of advice I always consistently give digital organisations, digital countries, starting out are one, build capability, get the academies sorted at scale. Two, don’t start building applications until you’ve got your identity strategy sorted out.

Angus Montgomery:

Right.

Kevin Cunnington:

Because if you don’t get your identity strategy first and foremost ahead of, then you find yourself in the kind of position we are which is, playing catchup on identity.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And there the two, they’ve always been my two priorities here at GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Support the Verify programme, build out the Academies.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Brilliant. And what were you, when you joined, obviously you said it was very very different from DWP, what were the differences in the sense of like, moving from a department to the centre and what you could do here and what you couldn’t do from the centre that you could do in departments?

Kevin Cunnington:

I think the main thing is that I always felt in DWP, notwithstanding the fact that I was running a bigger group probably two or three times the size of GDS, I wasn’t quite as busy if that makes sense. I had more time to think about the strategy. And famously we used to have these Friday morning breakfast meetings with the ‘brain trust’, quotes around that, where we just used to think about what DWP could look like in 2020, 2025, 2030.

And I think it’s taken you know, as you say, nearly the two and a half, three years I’ve been here to get to a point where I think I've now got the right structures and management team in place, that I’m actually beginning to free up to think about what is our 2030 vision, what is the future of A.I in the workplace and yeah, it’s taken quite, it’s taken much longer than I thought it would to get to that point where I’ve got that same quality of thinking time that I had in the departments.

Kevin Cunnington:

Which is just an interesting observation, really.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, that is interesting. And well in what other ways as well, I mean you obviously, in that respect GDS has changed in that you kind of, now have that space to think about that stuff. What other ways do you feel that GDS has grown and developed so far in your time here?

Kevin Cunnington:

Well I think the two obvious things you’d highlight is, it’s much bigger. It’s 860 people today, and I think it was about 400 when I joined, it’s of that order, so it’s much bigger.

The new building here in Aldgate is just brilliant. I think it’s made a massive change of quality of life for all of us here in GDS. But I think there’s some other things as well. Acquiring the Academies gave us a national footprint for the first time.

Angus Montgomery:

So we have Academies, sorry, in Leeds and..

Kevin Cunnington:

Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle. Hopefully I keep saying Bristol outloud, for the good people of Bristol to hear me, so hopefully that’ll come true at some point.

And I think the other thing that’s changed is we’ve now got the Introvert Network and of course, we’ve got the BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] Network, which didn’t exist back then, so I think we are you know, continuing to embrace diversity and inclusion here in GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

And that’s a very obvious thing that diversity and inclusion is, it’s something that we talk about a lot in this organisation, and rightly so, but I think I’ve not worked in organisations like this where it’s so obvious that the organisation cares about that, and I think that that’s really important.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I’m the same. I think it’s integral to its DNA.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And you wonder, I mean it’s one thing to take great pride in around GDS. I mean it’s not, I didn’t start it but nevertheless I feel the real responsibility of making sure we continue to be diverse and inclusive going forward.

Angus Montgomery:

Definitely. And looking forward, because we’re recording this in April and we’re moving onto a new financial year.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah.

Angus Montgomery:

So there’s a lot of work going on in GDS and around government as a whole as people prepare for it and people think about, not just the year ahead but as you’ve mentioned, the 10 or 20 years ahead and what we could do.

So first of all, could you tell me a little bit about what your priorities are for the next year?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah so in terms of priorities, I generally try and describe GDS you know, through the lens of history where, in 2012 we started out by digital by default, which was all just about building confidence that as a Civil Service we could insource some of these things and do them.

The next phase, 2015 onwards, I would say is building capability. That the integration of the Academies, the GAAP platforms, all the things we’ve done to scale the business.

And then I’d say over the last 12-18 months, we’ve talked more about transformation, collaboration and innovation really. That’s the kind of slogans we batted off for Sprint last year and so with that in mind, and we’ve got some big things landing in the very short term, we’ve got the A.I review that we’ve been doing on how A.I could be used in the workforce, that we’ve done in conjunction with DCMS, landing over the next few months. We’ve got the minister’s review on innovation and how that could land, although that report is becoming much broader than innovation. It’s really kind of front-running what I think we’ll end up saying as part of SR19, or spending review 19.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant. Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And then we’ve got quite a big set of tours really. So we’ve got all the new Sprint conferences in the devolved nations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, which of course we’ve never done before. We’re doing a special in Leeds and then of course, we’re heading home to London in September. And then on the back of that, we’ve got, we’re attending every Civil Service Live doing keynote presentations, and we’re doing the Let’s Talk About Race workshops as well.

Angus Montgomery:

Yes, which is towards the end of the month I think, isn’t it? Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes exactly. And then towards the end of the month, we’ve actually got Breaking Down Barriers. Which is our functional view of how we promote BAME people into the SCS [Senior Civil Service] within digital.

Angus Montgomery:

Into Senior Civil Service.

Yeah. Wow. So a lot coming up.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes.

Angus Montgomery:

A lot touring and a lot of talking. And yeah, a busy summer ahead. And as we kind of, as you think about your priorities, in your opinion, what, can you summarise what GDS is here to do and how that role is developing and how it will develop, I suppose over the coming years?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah so you know, we’ve tried to highlight the core values of GDS by putting them into pithy slogans really. ‘Show what good looks like’, and GDS has always been great at showing what good looks like from, right from the early days of user research right through to now. We show what good looks like.

Two, slightly new but ‘do the hardest things’. So my view is, GDS should be prototyping things today that departments will want to explore in 2 years time. Good example of that would be voice activation on GOV.UK.

Third value is around reflecting the society we serve. We talked a lot about diversity but we also need to encourage SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises) across the UK to work with us. We also need, as GDS, to have a more regional footprint.

And then the fourth value we talk about is helping government transform. And that for me, is the one I want to tweak going forward. I think our role is not to help but to lead.

Angus Montgomery:

Ok.

Kevin Cunnington;

And just be more proactive about, this is what good in the space of biometrics, or this is what good in the space of voice activation, looks like. And begin to work more proactively with departments to lay out that roundmap that we asked them to follow. Yeah just be much more proactive in the fourth category.

Angus Montgomery:

Ok. That’s interesting. So is that proactive in the sense of sort of, actively working with these projects or doing these things as exemplars almost?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly, exactly like that Angus. Working with some departments on exemplars, setting the standards and then, really, encouraging, cajoling even, departments to say well, now we’ve figured out how to do voice activation of services, why wouldn’t you make all your major services voice ‘activationable’ by 2027.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

That kind of thing. I think the other big shift is the local digital declaration. Where we’re obviously working much more closer nowadays with local authorities, which I think is a really good thing for the UK because citizens interact far more frequently with local authorities than they do obviously, central government.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. That’s really interesting. And finally, because we’re getting, we’re running towards the end of this episode, just finish with a couple of well, I suppose, quick fire-ish questions. First all, what’s the most challenging part of your job?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh quick fire? I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say keeping your eye on the ball really. There’s a lot going on, and actually just keeping as focused on the core business as well as planning for EU Exit, is definitely the most difficult part of it.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Keeping all, yeah...keeping in charge of everything. What’s the most enjoyable part?

Kevin Cunnington:

Well this will come as an irony ‘cause most people know I’m quite, well I am an introvert, that’s why I took up computer science but, I love the touring if I’m honest.

Angus Montgomery:

You’ve got a lot of it coming up so.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly. You know, the fact that we’re going on tour with as we said, Sprint, Civil Service Live, Breaking Down Barriers. I think people also know that when I was in Vodafone, for 3 and a half years, I didn’t spend a single week in the country, in this country.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

I was perpetually as the Global Head somewhere else, looking at stuff in the Czech Republic or Italy. And I feel you know, in the back half of this year, I’d like to do more support our international directorate, Chris Ferguson’s directorate in flying the flag a little for Britain overseas.

Angus Montgomery:

‘Cause there’s a lot of work going on there.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, and showing you know, why we have done some of the things we’ve done. And obviously learning from others as we do that.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And that, that would make me very happy.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant, yeah. And final question, what’s your, what are you most proud of from your time at GDS so far?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, there’s, there’s a huge list you know, from GAAP, GOV Wifi, all the work we’ve done on GOV.UK for EU Exit, which I think has been brilliant. The work we’ve started on innovation, the innovation survey, the innovation landscape, the new pipeline process, local digital declarations, the publication of the 7 Lenses book. Being on top of EU Exit, the Academies, the Emerging Tech Development programme, the Global Digital Marketplace. I mean it’s just..

Angus Montgomery:

The list goes on.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, yeah, you could be doing that for quite a while couldn’t you?

Angus Montgomery:

So thank you again to Kevin for joining us, and thank you for listening to this episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. I really hope that you enjoyed it. If you want to listen to future episodes or in fact, if you want to listen to the episodes that we’ve done so far, please do go to wherever it is that you download your podcasts episodes from, so Spotify, Apple Music, all those places. You’ll find us there, so hit subscribe and we hope you enjoy what we do in the future. And thank you again and goodbye.

Kevin Cunnington:

Thank you Angus.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #7 - How has digital changed public-sector organisations?

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #7 - How has digital changed public-sector organisations?

March 28, 2019

In the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast, we speak to people from across the public sector about how digital has affected their lives, their careers and the organisations they work for.

Those who contributed to this episode are:

  • Kevin Cunnington, Director General of the Government Digital Service
  • Sally Meecham, Head of Digital Data and Transformation for UK Research and Innovation
  • Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance
  • Matthew Cain, Head of Digital and Data from the London Borough of Hackney
  • Caren Fullerton, Chief Digital Officer for the Welsh Government

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:

Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery, and I’m a senior writer at GDS.

We’re recording this podcast in March 2019, and a few days ago, on the 12th March, it was the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for linking information across different computers , which was the proposal that he wrote that would eventually become the thing that we now know as the World Wide Web.

And this anniversary got us thinking, like lots of other people I suspect, about how much the World Wide Web has changed the way that we do things, the way that we work, and our lives. And in particular for those of us working in the public sector, how much it has changed public services and the way that governments and other public sector organisations, can deliver services and can improve the lives of the people using those services.

So for this episode what we wanted to do was, we wanted to hear the views of people across public sector digital roles, not just in central government but in local authorities, in devolved administrations. And we wanted to hear from them about how digital has changed the way that they work and what it means for them, and the advantages and the changes that it’s brought to their roles.

So we put out a call for contributions from people in senior digital roles and lots of people were kind enough to respond and what we did was, we emailed a bunch of questions out and people responded by sending audio clips of their thoughts. So we’ve got a whole load of audio clips, a load of great answers and we’re now going to use those audio clips to create this episode of the GDS podcast, so rather than hearing from just one person, you’re going to hear from lots and lots of different people and lots of different viewpoints.

So first of all, thank you very much to all of those people who contributed to this episode. In this episode, you’re going to hear from Kevin Cunnington, who is the Director General of the Government Digital Service. You’re going to hear from Sally Meecham, who is Head of Digital, Data and Transformation for UK Research and Innovation. You’re going to hear from Matthew Cain, who is Head of Digital and Data for London Borough of Hackney.

And you’re also going to hear from two people working at devolved administrations, and you’re going to hear a lot more from them in the future, because we’re working with...GDS is working with devolved administrations to run a series of Sprint events this year. So we’re going to be talking about those in the episode as well, so we’re running Sprint events all across the UK in partnership with the Scottish government, the Welsh government, the government of Northern Ireland and Leeds city council. And in this episode, you’re going to hear from two of our partners, who are working on those Sprint events. You’re going to hear from Caron Alexander, who is Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance, and you’re going to hear from Caren Fullerton, who is Chief Digital Officer for the Welsh Government .

So that’s my very long intro over. The TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version of that is, you’re going to hear from lots of different people, lots of different sound clips, and it’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to work seamlessly, I hope.

So let’s get down to it. So the first question that we wanted to find out was, why people wanted to work in digital, what excited them about it and what it’s meant for their careers. For lots of people, digital has always been a part of their working lives, so this was the case for Kevin Cunnington and this is what he said to us.

[Audio starts]

‘My bachelors degree is Computer Science, my masters degree, as people know, is in A.I. In 1992, this is a trip down memory lane, I wrote PWC’s global methodology of how to develop A.I systems using Agile. So I’ve always been a digital person. I spent most of my life in blue chip corporates really, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), Goldman Sachs, Vodafone, but I had a spell in the middle as an entrepreneur with mixed success if I’m honest. We built one company and sold it for lots of millions of pounds, and then I build another one which failed to make any money on them, and lost rather a lot of money. And I do say this to people, if you ever get to meet my wife, please don’t mention it, because she has forgiven me now but she wasn’t very happy about it at the time’.

Angus Montgomery:

And for some people, digital represented a new opportunity in their careers, it represented an opportunity to do something that they might not have imagined they were going to end up doing. This is Sally Meecham who’s got a really interesting story about how she ended up in a digital world.

[Audio starts]

‘I was a set designer, and I attended an internet conference about twenty years ago. And was just immediately enthralled and excited by the opportunities, the reach, the ability to connect, to have your own voice, be who you want to be with digital. That day I had an idea for a website, and I hadn’t really been using the internet hardly at all, so was quite surprised when this idea popped into my head for a peer-to-peer travel review website. And literally within the next few days, I’d given up my job, I met some people to set up a business and we set up a website. And within four months, I was an internet guru, which is obviously silly, but there weren’t that many people doing it at the time, so I’ll take that. And I still love digital, I think it’s phenomenal and we just need to keep working to make sure that it is fair’.

Angus Montgomery:

Sally Meecham there, from set designer to internet guru in just four months. So a common thread that came through in a lot of responses, and something we’ve obviously explored lots in this podcast previously, is the opportunity that digital provides to improve public services, and to improve the way that government and other organisations can serve people. So here’s Matthew Cain on that theme.

[audio starts]

‘In Hackney council, digital has changed our expectations of what we can do with technology and data to meet residents’ raised expectations. We’re using user centered design Agile approaches in order to redesign services so good that people prefer to use them.’

Angus Montgomery:

Shout out for GDS there as well which is great to hear. Caron Alexander had a similar, or a response on a similar theme, and also talks about the opportunity for digital to impact the way that government and [other local] other public sector organisations can deliver front line services to people. Here’s what she had to say.

[audio starts]

‘Working in digital transformation provides great opportunities to work closely with service owners and users, and really understand the needs. It’s very rewarding to work collaboratively, designing services that are easy to use, services that are accessible when and where you want to use them, and using a device of your choice.’

Angus Montgomery:

And Caren Fullerton explains how digital has changed her career as a civil servant and how that’s developed over the time she’s worked in the Welsh government and the Civil Service.

[audio starts]
‘Working in a digital role gives me a really great opportunity to focus on something which I’ve always really enjoyed in my career in the Civil Service, which is to look in a fresh, or even a critical way sometimes, at the way in which we work. My first job in the Civil Service was as an analyst, and every year we used to look at our data collection exercise, look at how we could redo the form, improve our IT system, change the way we presented the results. And so a focus very much on learning and continuing to improve and, for me, the opportunities offered by my current role are to look at everything we do, whether it’s a corporate system or whether it’s a system that provides a service to the population, look at it in a way that means we never have to stand still, and we’re always looking for ways to change and improve’,

Angus Montgomery:

So it’s great obviously, to hear very personal responses about how digital has affected people’s working lives, and what it’s meant for them on a personal level [0.08.00].
As I mentioned at the start of the podcast, all the people that we spoke to, have very senior digital roles in public sector organisations. So we wanted to kind of go beyond the personal viewpoints, and find out also how, what digital has meant, not just for these people but for the organisations that they work for and lead, and what it’s helped those organisations do.

And here’s Matthew Cain again. He’s talking about how digital really helps Hackney council meet the needs of its users, of the people who live in the borough of Hackney.

[audio starts]

‘I wanted to work in digital because I was always passionate about public services and about good public policy. But I always wanted to be able to see how that happened on the ground. So the opportunity to come in and work for the public sector gave me a chance to harness the inspirational qualities that Francis Maude (former Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General) and Mike Bracken (co-founder of GDS), and Tom Loosemore (co-founder of GDS) had led in the Government Digital Service, and give me an amazing opportunity to put that into practice myself.’

Angus Montgomery:

And Caren Fullerton sort of continues on that theme and talks specifically, not just about services but how digital can change the way that public sector organisations can deliver the policy that drives those services as well. Here’s Caren.

[audio starts]
‘I think the biggest change for us in terms of impact of digital on the way we work, has been to transform the way in which we develop and deliver policy. So through the whole policy cycle, whether it’s the discovery phase, looking at how the world looks at how we engage with our stakeholders to look at what the case for change is, all the way through to actually delivering the policy out there in Wales. Digital tools, digital thinking, user centered thinking has actually offered a whole new way of working, which people, who work in the Welsh government, are really enthusiastic to embrace’.

Angus Montgomery:

And Kevin Cunnington who as well as being Director General of GDS, has worked in senior digital roles at the Department for Work and Pensions has, you know, quite an interesting sort of oversight of how digital has developed in central government.

He talks about how, over recent years the environment has really changed in government and the public sector, now digital ways of working and responding to user needs are business as usual in many organisations.

[audio starts]

‘When I started in DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) in 2013, there were no other digital people apart from me. There was no profession for people like me in the Civil Service. There was no academies, there was no training. When we first set up the first academies and trained people in digital, I then went back into the existing DWP workplaces, and people used to say to me, genuinely said, ‘we don’t do it like that round here thanks’. So in the end, I ended up setting up an academy in a building in Leeds, and taking over the whole building. So we used to train people on the ground floor, and then allow them to work in an Agile way on the first and second floors, because the native environment in DWP was just so alien for them, they had to be sequestered, or quarantined, in this single building in Leeds. So I say the biggest changes, when you look back, nobody ever debates now whether we should do things digitally. Digital is business as usual.’

Angus Montgomery:

‘Nobody ever debates now that we do things digitally’, which is a great point and a great position for us to be in. And Caron Alexander sort of echoes this point about how digital can change organisational culture.

[audio starts]

‘Digital transformation has really started to change the culture within the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Now we’re designing our citizen facing services around people, the people that use those services and the uptake of our online digital service has exceeded all of our expectations’.

Angus Montgomery:

And as I mentioned at the top of the podcast, this change in culture and the whole idea of how digital can drive transformation, collaboration and innovation is something we, as GDS, are going to be exploring more in the Sprint series of events that we’re going to be running this year.

And we’re running these in collaboration with devolved administrations, including Northern Ireland and Wales. And so we wanted to hear from Caron Alexander, what she’s looking forward to in Sprint Belfast, which is the event that we will be doing there shortly. And here’s what she had to say.

[audio starts]

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting new people, and hearing about digital developments across UK government. It will be great to showcase some of our local digital transformation successes, to share experiences and to discuss lessons learnt with colleagues from across the public sector.’

Angus Montgomery:

And as well as doing a Sprint in Belfast, we’re also doing a Sprint in Cardiff in collaboration with the Welsh government. And so we wanted to hear from Caren Fullerton, what she’s planning and what she’s looking forward to from this sprint event.

[audio starts]
‘What I’m most looking forward to in Sprint Cardiff is actually meeting up with people who work in the same kind of role as me elsewhere in the Civil Service, find out about what they’re doing and learn about their experiences, good and bad, and hopefully taking some of that learning and applying it to the things that we’re doing here. There’s also a great opportunity to tell people about the things that we’re doing within Welsh government, and to sing some of our own praises for once’.

Angus Montgomery:

So lots to look forward to at these Sprint events, and if you want to find out more about them, then keep your eyes peeled on the GDS blogs because we’ll be talking a lot more about them in the coming weeks.

So finally, we’ve heard a lot about kind of how digital helps organisations deliver things better and how digital can change organisational culture, and Sally Meecham sort of closes off this section by pointing out that while obviously, digital has brought huge benefits and it is becoming business as usual, or has become business as usual for large public sector organisations, we do need to be careful not to sit on our laurels, and we need to make sure that we are continuing to drive forward and talk about, and showcase the great things that digital can bring. Here’s Sally.

[audio starts]
‘For me, it’s more consistency, design standards, spend control, empowerment and transparency. We’ve only really just begun this journey, it’s a few years old, and not everyone has adopted it. But it’s critical we stay on this path, it’s critical we still have standards and openness in government’,

Angus Montgomery:

So for our final sort of subject that we wanted to hear from people about. We heard about changes that digital can bring on a personal level and changes that digital can bring to organisations, and we wanted really to drill down into the specifics, to hear, not just about kind of, you know, cultural change or transformation of services, but what are the specific things that digital and digital government, and digital public services allow people to do that they couldn’t have done before. So Sally Meecham has an example that will be familiar to lots of people I think, about how digital has changed an aspect of her life and probably changed the same aspect of lots of listeners’ lives as well.

[audio starts]

‘I’m going to start with banking, which used to be for me, a really horrible experience. We needed to make that we were there for their opening times, and that we were lucky if we got somebody who was helpful and the queuing, just the whole thing about it, I used to really detest. And I do my banking, my personal banking and my business banking, when I want it, on what device I want to do it on. And I think that the advancements and changes of online banking are just getting better and I just think you know, it might sound a bit boring but it really does free up time to do things a little less boring instead’.

Angus Montgomery:

So I think the banking example is a really useful and interesting one for those of us working in the digital public sector because it’s the same thing for delivering government services. So what digital is allowing people to do as Sally has said, is do things in their own, on their own devices and freeing up people’s time. So rather than you know, government and other public sector organisations absorbing people’s time through difficult services, we’re making these things easy to do so people can spend the rest of their time doing the things that they actually want to do. So I think that’s a really valuable example. Matthew Cain focuses specifically on how digital has helped him and his colleagues working lives. And again, lots of this will feel familiar to those of you who work in digital public sector organisations.

[audio starts]

‘The work we’ve done in Hackney together has included some of my absolute career highlights, whether that’s the improvement to the Hackney work service, which means that more than 40 people now have a job that they didn’t have this time last year. Our work in fostering to improve the experience of applying to be a foster carer, or our work in the housing services. Personally though, the way we use Google Drive has changed the way I collaborate with teams, with people across the organisation and outside the council. Twitter has enabled us to develop much broader networks across the sector so that we can tap into the expertise in central government and local digital agencies. And Todoist is a brilliant tool for making sure that I can communicate and work well with my own teams’.

Angus Montgomery:

So lots of good examples there about how digital has helped Matthew’s day to day life, and helped him and his team deliver those great services. And when we asked Caren Fullerton this question, she had a really interesting and quite specific example about how digital can improve service delivery for a very particular group of users. The user group is those people who use assistive technology, so things like screen readers. And here’s Caren talking about how digital has helped to deliver services for that user group.

[audio starts]

‘So we’ve always given high priority to serving their needs well. Being as flexible as possible in making a range of tools available to users of assistive technology. But the way in which we’ve integrated the service to them with our basic service provision, has not worked particularly well. So typically we would roll out some new software or new hardware, and come to the needs of that group of users, the assistive technology users, right at the end of the project when it became a problem to solve, sometimes very difficult problems, so in some cases, software that had been rolled out to 95% of the organisation couldn’t be rolled out to the final 5%. This wasn’t satisfactory, and meant we were spending an awful lot of resources on actually providing support to those users. So by transforming the way we thought about that service, we were able to reduce support resources and to actually improve service and most importantly, enable those staff to be much more productive and the simple way of doing this was to start any new project with the roll out to that particular group of users, so from about 3 years ago, we have started to do that. So new phone systems, new hardware which we’ve recently rolled out in the last year or so, moves to Windows 10, upgrades to software, we have taken the needs of assistive tech users to be the ones that we need to sort out right at the start of the project and that has meant that, the needs of our, the majority of our users are relatively straightforward to deal with in the second and third stages of the project. So what it’s given us is a slightly longer start to some of our projects because we have to deal with some of the more challenging integration issues right at the beginning, but a much softer landing towards the end of a rollout, much better service for our assistive technology users enabling them to be productive, and to receive the same service as everybody else, and has required lower levels of support from our software teams as the services have gone into regular business as usual service delivery’.

Angus Montgomery:

So Caren Fullerton there with quite a specific example of digital improving something. Caron Alexander focuses on, in her response, on the broader benefits that digital tools that can bring, that is if you build these digital tools using the right approach and embed them across organisations.

[audio starts]

‘In driving forward the Northern Ireland digital transformation programme, we used a principle of re-use when developing new digital services. This has resulted in a growing number of reusable technical components which are now in our digital toolkit. And these components are available at little or no cost for subsequent projects and also, this can substantially increase the pace of delivery.

Angus Montgomery:

And Kevin Cunnington also focuses on tools and platforms, and one platform in particular, GOV.UK Verify, which is government’s identity assurance platform. And he has an anecdote from his family, and how GOV.UK Verify has helped them.

[audio starts]

‘A good example happened recently with my wife, where my wife’s been a long time user of the Verify system, she used it to check her state pension. The other part of her pension is with the NHS, because she was an NHS worker. And that’s always been problematic because historically, it’s one of these systems that’s got a you know, a cryptic username and an even more cryptic password methodology, so she’d never remember it. And everytime she goes to check it, she has to ring them up and get them to tell her da da da. But good news. The NHS pension scheme has adopted Verify. So she texted me at work, saying ‘this is brilliant, I’ve just used Verify to check my state pension and I’ve just used Verify to check my health service pension’. She said, ‘I love your Verify’, she said, the highest compliment in my line of work you ever get.

Angus Montgomery:

So there you go. We’ve heard from a range of people, kind of at a range of different levels about what digital has brought to them from the personal, to the professional, to the way that their organisations are structured, to the culture, to the way that they deliver services.

So I wanted to give a big thanks again to everyone who contributed their answers to this, and gave us some really really great responses. And I hoped that you enjoyed this episode and I hope that you found those responses interesting and valuable as we did.

And if you would like to contribute your own thoughts about how digital has changed the way that you work, and what excites you most about working in digital public services, we’d love to hear them so please do share on social media. You can use the hashtag #GDSpodcasts, all one word. And also if you could tag us at @GDSTeam in your comment, that would be brilliant. And then we can sort of see what you’re saying and share them more widely and it would just be lovely to hear kind of, more widely from people about what they think about this.

So that brings us to the end of this episode of the GDS podcast, so thank you very much for tuning in and listening. If you’d like to catch up with any of our previous episodes, or if you’d like to subscribe to future episodes, then please head to wherever it is that you download your podcasts from, we’re on all the major platforms, Spotify, Apple Music, Pocket Casts, everything like that. Find the GDS podcast and hit subscribe, and we hope you enjoyed this episode, and we hope that you will tune in again in the future. Thank you very much and goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #6 - an interview with Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #6 - an interview with Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation

February 21, 2019

In this episode, we talk to Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden CBE MP about digital government. A full transcript of the episode follows:

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello and welcome to the GDS podcast. I'm Sarah Stewart. I'm a senior writer at the Government Digital Service.

We're recording this podcast on location in the office of today's guest. Oliver Dowden became Minister for Implementation in January 2018. With this promotion came responsibility for digital government. One year on, we will talk about his year in office, his current focus and the future, in particular innovation. Minister, welcome.

 

Oliver Dowden: Good afternoon, thank you for having me on.

 

Sarah Stewart: Now, most people can imagine what a studio looks like but not many people would know what a minister's office looks like. So can you help set the scene? Where exactly are we?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I'm very fortunate with this ministerial office. It's the sort of ministerial office that people imagine their minister to have. It's actually overlooking Horse Guards Parade, so you can see where the Trooping of the Colour happens. And it's one of those classic sort of 18th century buildings with a very high ceiling. So it's a very pleasant place to work. I'm very privileged to have an office like this.

 

Sarah Stewart: And we're right in the middle of Whitehall as well, so we're really at the centre of government.

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes, completely. We're number 70 Whitehall, so we are next door to 10 Downing Street and to the Treasury building, Parliament is diagonally opposite and it’s in the Cabinet Office.

 

The Cabinet Office is really the heart of the government machine. It's kind of like the government's HQ. It brings different parts of government to work together. It coordinates, it cajoles. We try to facilitate things working across the whole of government. And one example of this is the Government Digital Service - how we ensure that digital transformation happens across government, how we have the same standards across government, how we embrace emergent technologies in government.

 

Sarah Stewart: It’s a really fantastic place from which to operate. So, just before we start...I take it at the portrait of Pitt the Younger on your wall isn't from your personal collection?

 

Oliver Dowden: No, sadly, sadly it's not and I'm certainly not trying to send any message with Pitt the Younger behind me! [laughter] I look at Pitt the Younger and think how little I have achieved! I think he became Prime Minister in his twenties, although I think he perhaps died when he was about my age or shortly afterwards.

 

Sarah Stewart: Well at great risk to my reputation, I'm going to venture some 18th century political trivia – I believe it was it was Pitt the Younger who shaped the role of Prime Minister into one of a coordinator of government departments – so this is my convenient segue into asking you how it feels to be a coordinator of a government department.

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I work to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David

Lidington, so I suppose he's the ultimate coordinator of my government department in which I serve as a minister. But certainly an awful lot of what I do as a minister is coordination.

So whether that is the functional agenda that works across government, so the coordination of a common government estates policy, coordination of common government HR, common government commercial relationships and common government digital practices, all of this is about trying to move from a situation where you have in each individual government department you have a completely separate commercial team, a completely separate estates team completely separate HR team, and say ‘actually in most government departments we have a lot in common so why don't we try and work together, follow the common good and harness our combined powers’, as it were, and it also fits into another part of my brief which is implementation...I’m the Minister for Implementation people usually ask ‘well what does that actually mean?’...

 

Sarah Stewart:...Yes, how did you get that title? Is that something you select yourself? Or..?

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes, well it was the Prime Minister...so when the Prime Minister appointed me at the beginning of last year, she said that one of the big challenges we have in government is it's perhaps the easiest thing is for politicians to make promises. It's harder, in particular at the moment, in a hung parliament, to get legislation through Parliament to make it happen.

But then how do you actually ensure that the delivery happens on the ground? And what can we do as a Cabinet Office, as ministers to try and coordinate the delivery on the ground and to deal with problems when delivery isn't happening in the way that we want. That's the essence of the implementation role: trying to unblock those problems, trying to ensure that we're on track to deliver the things that the public elected us to do. And also, I'm aided in that by the fact that I have oversight of all the government functions, so I can use the sort of mechanisms we have into our procurement relationships through commercial, our digital relationships through the digital team to try and get that broader picture of how government works.

 

Sarah Stewart: So was there anything in your background that prepared you for your role? How did you end up here?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well it depends where you want to begin with the journey. I mean, I went to my local comprehensive school and from there, I did quite well academically and I thought you know, I did quite well academically, what do you do if you get good grades? I fancy could I be a maybe a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher or maybe an accountant? Those were the only things I could think of. So I thought well law sounds... being a lawyer sounds quite interesting, so I applied and was fortunate enough to win a place to study law at Cambridge. I studied law...I didn't find it the most exciting, enjoyable thing to do [laughs] but I got offered a place, a training contract, with a city firm. But I wasn't so sure about it so I decided to try and do something different. So I actually worked in Japan teaching for a year in rural Japan...

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh wow.

 

Oliver Dowden: ...which was a fascinating experience in very, very rural Japan. I was a long way from any other English speakers and I didn't actually speak a word of English – of Japanese – when I arrived so I sort of had to learn my Japanese from a book. But it was a fascinating experience. I came back, I completed my legal training, but I realised very rapidly that law wasn't for me and after a few different jobs, I kind of got into advisory work and from there found out about an opportunity to work for the Conservative Party. I've always been a Conservative, but never thought of politics as being something I'd actually do for my main job.

I worked on the 2005 election campaign and I got to know David Cameron. And when he became leader of the Conservative Party, I ended up working for him on the 2010 General Election campaign and he asked me to go into Number 10, initially as political adviser and then deputy chief of staff in Downing Street. And I genuinely thought when the 2015 election came around, I'll leave after that. And then essentially my home seat... the incumbent Member of Parliament was retiring from my home seat, and eventually after lots of sort of deliberating and discussing it with my family, I thought I'd regret not, you know, seizing the opportunity and having the privilege of representing an area that I knew so well. And I was fortunate enough

to be selected as a candidate and elected as Member of Parliament in 2015, and then fortunate enough to be appointed as minister in the government by the Prime Minister at the beginning of 2018.

I mean, I think in terms of what shaped me and helped me in this, I think having exposure to lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds whether that's, you know, a complete culture shock of teaching in rural Japan or...I certainly don't come from a political family or a family that has any experience in sort of government, so you certainly get a different perspective there in terms of seeing things from the outside. That's certainly given me, and in my wider ministerial role, a passion for ensuring that we have genuine diversity both in the Civil Service and in public appointments, because I really think that if you get a group of people around the table who have different experiences whether that's culture, education, gender, ethnic background, those different experiences coming together helps you make better decisions and strengthens decision-making. And also, I think it's morally incumbent on government, for the country, to be governed by people who represent the country as a whole.

 

Sarah Stewart: I'd like to know what your very first job was.

 

Oliver Dowden: My very first job was actually working in a warehouse in Dunstable, which is just outside of Luton in Bedfordshire. It was an import/export business and I spent many holidays and summers and so on. Particularly two tasks I remember: respraying faulty produce that came in and then and wiring lamps. I wired lots and lots of lamps during those years and then boxing and packing and sending them on. But it was a relatively small organization and our duties extended to everything including cleaning, and you know the whole gambit.

 

Sarah Stewart: So the seeds for technology were sewn actually at a very early age.

 

Oliver Dowden: The practical application of technology, definitely!

 

Sarah Stewart: So you we're David Cameron's deputy chief of staff, so you were around during the creation of the Government Digital Service. How does it feel to go from witnessing the creation of an organization to being the minister

responsible for it in quite a short period of time?

 

Oliver Dowden:

I mean I don't I don't want to overplay my hand in the creation of the Government Digital Service – I pay real tribute to Francis Maude who was the minister that drove the creation of this.

And you know, in Number 10, we were very supportive of it, and I think what Francis did fantastically with the Government Digital Service was to seize the opportunity of creating something that sits across the whole of government, drives digital transformation. And he took some very bold decisions. He wasn't afraid to break things as it were, to drive the digital transformation. And he really got the Government Digital Service established and established the UK's a world leader in this space. So I kind of had a sense of the origins of the Government Digital Service, certainly coming in as one of the ministers responsible for it, reporting to David Lidington.

I think there's more we can do to be telling the story of how much GDS has achieved and how much it is currently doing. So for example if you look at Government as a Platform, the creation of GOV.UK, that's a common platform for all of government, it brings together disparate areas of government activity which now literally has billions of hits every year. We're pioneering things like GOV.UK Notify, GOV.UK Pay, again all of this is trying to do two things. First of all to move away from individual departments to the common government experience. I think most people just want to go somewhere and get government to do something for them. So removing those kind of artificial boundaries, but secondly continuing this push about how we drive the best innovation and disruption because it's really the tech revolution is driven by disruption and it's that's quite a challenge for government to cope with it but we have to keep on pushing because otherwise we will find government falling behind the rest of the economy.

 

Sarah Stewart: So what's the current focus for digital government at the moment?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think it's a number of things. First of all it is continuing and driving their end-to-end digitisation of government services so we need to... almost all government services now have an initial digital interface, but it's not the case that all government services are digitised all the way through. Often there are mechanical back-office functions, that slow things down and we're not taking the best advantage of the use of tech. So that is the kind of that digital transformation sits at the core. It's also creating commonalities across government, so continuing to drive the government as a platform and continue to develop such as GOV.UK Notify and so on. It's about driving up training and understanding – not just people in the digital profession – but wider policymakers say they understand the potential and it's also about seeing how we can apply the latest technology and GDS being a guide and a leader for departments in how they can embrace that new technology.

 

Sarah Stewart: So as you've alluded to, your brief is very varied. How do you focus your time?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well, to a certain extent they complement one another. So if you take, for example, emergent technology, I'm very keen for the government to embrace emergent technology, to use the opportunities that are there to help transform the service that citizens receive, and do so in a more efficient way. That kind of then links in to how we deliver and how we achieve implementation, but it also links into the commercial part of my brief because a lot of that has to be procured from the private sector.

So I tend to think of it more in terms of where can I really focus my efforts. But an area that really interests me, and I think we've got a huge potential, is in relation to GovTech and to innovative technologies and government digital transformation. I think for a number of reasons. I think first of all, it's one of those few areas where you can say hand on heart, if we get this right we can deliver more for less and we can deliver a better outcome for citizens. That's pretty unusual across different areas of government. The second reason is that we have a wonderful tech sector in this country and actually if we can prove that tech works to deliver better outcomes for people in the UK Government, it unlocks opportunities for tech companies to apply that around the world. I think thirdly, in terms of the wider implementation role, if you think about how people's experience of consuming in the private sector has changed enormously in the past 10 or 20 years through disruptive technologies whether that's – not recommending any particular company – but let's say the way Amazon has transformed the shopping and consumer experience, Airbnb in relation to accommodation, as Spotify and others in relation to the consumption of music, all those kind of disruptions are making products more easily available, often more cheaply available and more readily accessible in general. I think we should be aspiring to do the same thing in respective to public services. And I think if we fail to do that in respective public services in years to come people will begin to draw an unfavorable contrast between how they consume services in the public sector versus how they do so in the private sector.

 

Sarah Stewart: So, what exactly is standing in our way, in terms of government making process?

 

Oliver Dowden: There are areas of very very good practice across different bits of government. So, for example, HMRC has done a lot of work in terms of embracing repeat robotic processes, similarly DWP, if you look at, for example, the government GovTech Challenge. This is a fund to use new and emergent technologies. We've been doing some fantastic stuff around AI and geospatial data but it's not a consistent picture. So I think one of the things I'm trying to do in the production of an emergent technology strategy, is to try and draw out the best of what government is doing, showcase it, learn what we did to make that work well so then those lessons can be applied elsewhere in government. But it links into other areas as well. How we procure those kind of things from the private sector how we get the best of innovation from the private sector and it goes to things like the culture of government. So we want to make sure that people feel empowered to be able to take proportionate risks. I think you're not going to get innovation without taking risks and sometimes those risks will go wrong. It is okay to fail, if you're helping to drive that innovation. So, trying to achieve that that cultural change as well.

 

Sarah Stewart: Why do we need a strategy?

 

Oliver Dowden: It’s not about government sticking a finger in the air and saying ‘we want to go for blockchain because it's the technology of the moment’, it's just thinking how we how we can make use of that, so that that kind of started the ball rolling. But when you start the ball rolling about how do you think you can use emergent technology, that opens up wider questions, as I said around procurement, around the culture of government, so it's sort of broadened into those different areas. And actually it's been very interesting in framing this strategy – rather than us sort of sitting in Whitehall with a few at policy officials trying to come up with a policy, we've tried to go out there and talk to people. So I've held events in different parts of the country, indeed I also attended an event in in Paris where we talked about this as well, which was hosted, well variously attended, by both the President of France and the Prime Minister of Canada, which gives you some sort of indication of the seriousness that all governments are taking. But we've also been to Edinburgh, to different parts of England, the rest of United Kingdom. And you get consistent messages coming through. And those relate to how we need to change the culture of government, to embrace new technologies, how we need to change the way we buy in technologies, how we need to improve skills. So hopefully what people will see in the strategy, when it's produced, are sensible steps to help us do that. I'm not promising that this is going to be the endpoint, clearly it won't be, but hopefully there will be some helpful signposts along the route.

 

Sarah Stewart: So in that period of engagement was there anything that really stood out to you? Any ‘aha!’ moments you learned from any of the academics or the practitioners or tech leaders in the field?

 

Oliver Dowden: I think all roads lead back data. And it's certainly the case that data...it really feels to me that this year and the next year is the moment where we move from seeing the potential of data that's been talked about a lot to actually it's starting to lead to some big breakthroughs in how we do things differently. And actually you're starting to see it in the health sector already. And I think that it strikes me that this is a very exciting time, but in order to unlock that there's a lot of work to be done. For example, the government holds a huge amount of data, but often that data is not accessible, so we need to look about how we make it more accessible and we also need to look at how we make people not just do all the sort of tech experts understand the potential but all policymakers need to understand the potential of the data that they hold. So I think if there's one ‘aha moment’ when I thought that this is something we could really go big on that is probably it.

Sarah Stewart: If I could just move on to talk to you about your work with SMEs and the GovTech sector.You've said previously that innovation relies on, or successful innovation relies on, a good relationship with the private sector. Why can't government go it alone?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think we have we have so many opportunities out there. If you look at the kind of interesting, innovative stuff that is going on with SMEs, it’s not just SMEs, large companies as well they're doing interesting stuff with emergent technologies, they're doing interesting stuff with data. The idea that government is going to have all the answers or can create all the answers... if we don't embrace that what's going on the private sector [could mean] we're missing out on a huge amount of knowledge and creativity. And I think the best way to proceed is to work in in partnership, so there will be some instances – and GDS does this a lot – GDS does stuff in-house, but equally we buy in skills and knowledge and I think that then reinforces a healthy mixed-market economy whereby we create opportunities for the private sector. The private sector manages to grow through having those opportunities, but we get lots of ideas and intellectual property from the private sector. I think that enriches both sides of the economy in the UK and helps strengthen our position as a global digital leader.

 

Sarah Stewart: How are you making – or how is government – making it easier for the private sector and the public sector to collaborate?

 

Oliver Dowden: We've already made a good start with GovTech [Catalyst] which is a £20 million fund announced by the Treasury just last year that has been run through Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service. We've had three rounds of challenges doing lots of interesting... taking lots of interesting challenges and using emergent technologies to address them. And what GovTech has done is to try and sort of soften the barrier between government and the private sector through procurement, because I think, too often, government decides what it wants then goes out to market with a very prescriptive solution and quite a rigid procurement process. Having the opportunity to have a competition where you have different stages so different people pitch into what the solution might look like is one things we managed to do with GovTech, and it forms part of a pattern that I hope we can add to where we have the opportunity for soft engagement in procurement before it actually happens. We can get the ideas from the private sectors to what we're after and how we procure it.

 

Sarah Stewart: So there is life for digital government beyond the end of the Government Transformation Strategy? They'll always be work to do.

 

Oliver Dowden: Oh there will always be work to do. I don't think the digital transformation of society and the economy as a whole is going to end anytime soon [laughter] and government has to keep up with it.

 

Sarah Stewart: And of course, we're supporting EU exit as well. GDS is playing an important role there. Do you think that meeting the short-term needs of EU exit will in be in any way compromised, or compromise, the longer term ambitions for government transformation or indeed, do you think it will accelerate it?

 

Oliver Dowden: I think it's more likely to be the latter. I think there are there are big opportunities created by the need to adapt to Brexit and certainly, necessity can often drive innovation and I think that's one of the core things that GDS is doing.

 

Sarah Stewart: You mentioned the principles of GDS and indeed other departments who are undergoing digital transformation. And the first principle is users first. And I suppose as a constituency MP, you're doing user research all the time, listening to what people want and wanting to deliver on those things. How does that play into your role as a minister? How does what they say, translate?

 

Oliver Dowden: I'm the number one thing is that most people care about outcomes not processes. I think what GDS is doing is increasingly shifting that focus towards the output regardless of the different government processes so for example we're looking at how you can just type in ‘learn to drive’ and it cuts across the different parts of government that help you achieve that or ‘start your own business’ or ‘move house’ – all those kind of things. That's that's what citizens are looking for and I think that's that would be an increasing trend in what we're doing I think. That also links in to how you interface as well. Depending on almost precisely how old you are, you relate to digital in different ways and increasingly there's use of voice technology, accessing technology through all different mediums we need to make sure we're keeping up with that.

 

Sarah Stewart: You mentioned visiting the GovTech summit in Paris. Do you keep an eye on what other governments are doing in the innovation space? Is there any country in particular that's piquing your interest?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think we're fortunate to be quite ahead of the curve in the UK, but I'm always conscious of who's playing catch up and it's interesting – all around the world people are starting to do this. So Singapore have made it a huge priority and hopefully I'm going to Denmark later this month, where again the government there is really committed to digital transformation and everyone knows about Estonia as well, that was the leader though clearly Estonia it’s slightly different. Canada is doing a lot of work. I was talking to High Commissioner about it just the other day. So there is definitely...I wouldn't say a race because I think we're all trying to get to the same endpoint, but I want to make sure that the UK is at the forefront of doing that.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yes, what do they say? A rising tide lifts all ships?

 

Oliver Dowden: Exactly.

 

Sarah Stewart: When you were on your travels and conducting your engagement to inform the strategy was there anyone in particular that you found particularly interesting or that really helped shape your understanding?

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes there's lots of examples. I think what's being done with CivTech in Scotland it's very interesting. We've kind of done a similar thing to it with GovTech but I think there are definitely lessons that we can learn from there. You can't help but be impressed by some of the tech applications particularly in relation to virtual reality. That's some way down the line for government but it is certainly something that makes you think.

 

Sarah Stewart: And just as we draw to a close, what have been the high points of your year?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well it was I must say it was a tremendous privilege to be in Paris and President Macron hosted us for lunch at the Élysée Palace, we were able to talk about this on a pan-European level. That brought home to me how this is an exciting and emergent trend, but also looking in terms of the practical application, seeing how the use of technology has been transforming people's lives and that's what we're all in government for in the end, making people's lives better.

 

Sarah Stewart: And there was one more thing…the podcast of course.

 

Oliver Dowden: Of course! Oh but you asked up til now! The podcast is ongoing!

 

Sarah Stewart: Well that brings us to the end of today's podcast. Thank you so much for joining us it's been really interesting.

 

Oliver Dowden: Pleasure, thank you.

 

Sarah Stewart: Thank you very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll listen again next month when we talk to more interesting people about interesting things in the world of digital government. Until then, farewell.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #5 - an interview with Kit Collingwood

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #5 - an interview with Kit Collingwood

January 30, 2019

In this episode, we talk to former DWP Deputy Director and OneTeamGov co-founder Kit Collingwood about her time in government. 

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast, my name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS and I’m very pleased to be joined today by Kit Collingwood, currently at DWP but recently announced soon to be leaving and getting an exciting new job in agency-world, so we’ll be talking to Kit about her time in government and looking back over some of the things that she’s done, so thankyou for joining us Kit

Kit Collingwood:
Thanks for having me.

Angus Montgomery:
So Kit, just to kick things off could you tell me a little bit about your role at DWP, your current role, and some of the things that you do there?

Kit Collingwood:
Sure. So my role is head of data transformation for the Department for Work and Pensions, so what my teams do is we work in the intersection between data, digital and technology to improve services and improve decision-making.

Angus Montgomery:
And how did you end up there? What’s your career path been so far? Because you’ve been around- well, I think it’s fair to say you’re a well-known figure in digital government. You’ve been around digital government for a while. What’s that journey entailed?

Kit Collingwood:
Well, it’s a huge cosmic accident actually. I worked actually in the engineering sector for five years after I graduated. I was a proof-reader and a translator for five years and then I decided that I wanted to be in the public service in some capacity. So I in 2009 joined the civil service fast-stream. I was a policy maker for three years working on different areas of justice policy, and I worked in parliament for a while putting a bill through parliament.

When I came from the end of that experience, I almost left the civil service because the ways that I thought that policy making and parliamentary work were happening were so antiquated and so out of touch with the average person’s experience that I’d really sort of lost faith with a lot of government ways of working and I was really saddened by a lot of what I’d seen. There was really no empathy or contact with people on the outside of Whitehall and I felt myself really distanced from average human experience.

At the same time, I fell into a delivery manager job at a place called the Office of the Public Guardian, which is one of the executive agencies of the Ministry of Justice. I applied for it as a fast-stream role, so it was just one of the regular rotation roles. I didn’t know what a delivery manager was. I didn’t really know how the internet worked, and I knew nothing about agile or about technology. I applied for this role called delivery manager which looked quite fun, and it turned out to be the delivery manager for the lasting power of attorney service, which was one of the first exemplars in the GDS transformation programme.

So this was coming towards the end of 2012, which is why I’ve been around for a long time because the beginning of digital government I suppose was around that time in the way that we know it now. GDS was about a year old really.

I had an induction that was hilarious in hindsight where my boss sat me down on my first day and she said, “Here’s your induction. I’ve just quit.” So my boss quit on my first day, and she was head of the transformation programme for the Office of Public Guardian. I, being the cheeky youngster that I was, went to her boss and said, “Can I have her job please on a temporary promotion?” And he was foolish enough to give it to me, and that’s how I came into digital government.

Angus Montgomery:
Oh wow.

Kit Collingwood:
So I was the accidental head of a transformation programme that I had no idea how to lead, but I did have some ideas about how I thought the place could be better run. So at that point, I was working with a guy called Chris Mitchell from GDS who was one of the very first sort of transformation partners which GDS would place with departments to help them understand how to do digital. He and I got on very well and I also got on very well with Mark O’Neill who was the other person sort of in place at the Ministry of Justice, where OPG was.

So they began to teach me the ropes about what this thing called digital was because I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know what a software developer did. I had no idea about how all of this works, and really the first six months of that were just me learning and learning and learning. Very quickly I met a few people who would completely transform how I thought about government. Tom Loosemore, Mike Bracken, Richard Pope, Tim Paul and a few others, so I would go to the old buildings in Holborn and that’s how I learned what digital government was, was from those people. They really taught me the basics of why this thing was necessary, what transformation meant, and they inspired me to stay in public service.

Angus Montgomery:
I’m interested in- because you sort of described in your early career you were becoming frustrated at the lack of human-centeredness or lack of humanness of governments, but you didn’t know what digital meant. So you kind of obviously had a lot of empathy and you understood that government needed to be more user-centred, but at what stage or how did you realise that digital was a way or the way to do this? Or is digital the way to do this?

Kit Collingwood:
No, I don’t think digital in itself is the way to do it, but it’s one of the tools that we need to be able to do it. So the ability for technology to bring services into people’s homes and everyday lives is part of the way that government should re-approach human connection. I’m fairly convinced about that, but it’s only a subset I think. We, I think, need fundamental retraining in empathy skills, or training not retraining. Fundamental training in empathy skills in order that we can approach the people we serve with compassion.

That’s not sort of pure cuddly thinking. There’s a huge economic benefit to understanding end users better, because if you understand the impact of your ideas and your policies on the average person then you can more effectively implement those policies. That to me just stands to reason, so to me high empathy has financial gains for government as well and it frustrates me that people don’t often see that.

But to put that aside, to answer your original question, the way that I sort of connected this idea of human connection and digital government was through user research, the kind of doggedness of user research. And quite quickly coming into- I think I inherited a team of sort of two or three people at the OPG and they were bolstered by some GDS folk. I mean, it’s a dream to have somebody like Richard Pope being able to effectively just consult on your ideas with, and that’s kind of an incredible privilege to have had. But there was also this cohort of user researchers, and I didn’t know what one of those was.

So just observing them at close quarters, this idea of iterating on your ideas, not doing a massive big bang thing and then just sort of hoping it works, which was- that is the way that government has and had done things. Suddenly there was this cohort of people who would do something small and then test it, see if it worked, and then do something else and then test it to see if it worked.
I saw the potential for that outside of technology, so I could see the application of that in policy-making very easily.

I could see the application of that even in law-making, which is more controversial, but I can see that. And in fact law-making is iterative actually. It goes through both houses several times, but to me the connection to end users is still lacking, and it’s got huge application for customer service as well, iterating in your ideas. None of the things I’ve just said are remotely original. They all happen now, but at the time it was quite revolutionary. So this idea of getting in a room with people who would be on the receiving end of your stuff, that was huge to me and that really reinvigorated my faith in public service.

Angus Montgomery:
And can you describe for people who weren’t around, say, back then, it wasn’t that long ago, but in 2012 when the exemplars programme was running, what was the exemplars programme? How did it function and what was the purpose of it?

Kit Collingwood:
Well, it was 25 high volume services that had a huge potential to be transformational, so it was things- so lasting power of attorney was one and that’s the ability to give somebody the power to act on your behalf if you lose mental health. There were things like carers’ allowance, which is part of my current department, Department for Work and Pensions, and also some less emotive but high volume stuff, so a lot of the DVLA’s digital services, a couple of them fell into that transformation programme as well.

So these were high volume services that would show the potential for digital government, and they were acknowledged as being the starting line really. It was to get 25 of them into beta within a certain timescale to show the pace that was potentially there. And for me to begin to develop the skills that government would need to be able to be digital for the future, one of the things which has really dragged, it’s a lot better now, but one of the things that really dragged was this acknowledgement from government that we need this massive cohort of skills to be able to be sustainable in digital beyond something that was a programme, you know, beyond something finite.
So I used that exemplar programme to build up a lot of trust and support in what I was doing so I could hire the right kind of people because I could see that this wasn’t going to go away.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, yes. How did that actually function day to day, and what was the kind of relationship between- because exemplars is very much run by GDS with these departments. How did that work in practical terms? Was there a sort of mixed GDS/MOJ team? How did that work?

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, there was initially, yes, and then GDS slowly peeled off. I’m wary that I’m speaking entirely from my own experience. I know that I have an overwhelmingly positive experience of it. Other departments I know felt almost affronted that GDS were coming in and sort of telling them how to do their own services effectively, and I know that there was tension there.

Angus Montgomery:
Why do you think your experience was positive in that sense? Because GDS was still coming in and kind of telling you or showing you a way of doing something. Why do you think that worked when it might not have worked elsewhere?

Kit Collingwood:
I never felt that I was being told anything. Maybe it’s because I was so keen to listen, so I felt very humbled by being in this new role, so part of it undoubtedly will be how willing I was to listen to them. I was in a new executive agency, so the OPG was new to me. The Office of the Public Guardian was new, so I was learning the professional domain I was in. I was learning the technical domain and I was learning about digital government so I felt extraordinarily empty-headed. But I’m a really good leader, so I knew I could lead the things. I knew I’d have the right ideas, but I had so much to learn and probably me being so open to learning helped us move that path. If I’d have had slightly more emotional and professional capital invested in what had already gone before, maybe it would have gone less smoothly. That was definitely part of it.

The other thing is I recruit curious people, so the team that I brought in to work with me in the OPG were secondees from operational centres, people from policy-making, some external hires. I always promoted a culture of partnership with GDS, so for me they were friends from the beginning. I had no reason not to have that attitude and other people did.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. And I suppose the other kind of truism that’s spoken about the exemplars is that they were really, really difficult to work on and that there was burnout and that there were people working incredibly hard but getting incredibly frustrated, and was that something you experienced as well?

Kit Collingwood:
I didn’t burn out. I found it hugely energising, and again I think my teams were protected by the fact that we did have such a positive relationship. I’m quite keen on sustainable mental health so we never were a team that would work until midnight. We never thought that was cool. We never thought there was anything cool about that, so it never felt very tense in our office. It never- and also you have to embrace a bit of humility in what you’re doing. You’re doing something great and we had a great sense of pride about that, but it’s not brain surgery. Nobody was going to die if we all knocked off at 6:00pm instead of 10:00pm. We took it incredibly seriously but not too seriously, so we never did burnout.

We were extraordinarily focused. We basically did one thing for nine months and then we did a second thing for another nine months, so sustainability was always on my mind. And I found very quickly, because I got promoted quite quickly  at that time, I was in danger at the end of my time of OPG of losing visibility of individual products being delivered, so I always had this awareness that you can reach a tipping point where people will start to feel out of focus, and I’d known that from my own experience. So I always tried to have empathy with my teams and make sure that they could work at a pace that suited them.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. And they understood- because the other thing about working in that sort of environment is you’re delivering so quickly, you kind of need to- I don’t know. This is just me positing, I suppose. You kind of need to step back and look at what you’ve achieved as well and if you’re delivering really quickly that can be quite hard to do.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, it was a whirlwind. It always felt like a happy whirlwind, and a lot of the- we had like the lowest turnover of the whole place, you know, really high engagement, and there were people still working in that digital team that have been there now for five or six years, so it was a good place to be, but the pace was high. I remember a year in we looked back at what we’d done and we’d done one service from scratch to public beta, an additional service from scratch into alpha. We’d done the first digital strategy. We’d quadrupled the team size. We’d redrawn how we did recruitment. We’d changed the pay scales. We’d redone our commercial contract so that we were outside of big IT contracts, and what else had we done? There was something else as well. Oh, we’d redesigned the governance as well so we could do our governance.

And we’d sort of looked back after a year and we were like, “Holy.” We did a lot, and a lot of it was- there was a real lack of self-importance to that team. We knew we were doing good stuff, but when we wrote our strategy it was like eight pages so we did it in about three weeks, so there was a real lack of fanfare in a good way. You know, it was just heads down and crack on and try not to show off too much.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s interesting you say that because that’s one of the things, because I joined GDS in 2016 because I’d been a journalist before so I’d been a sort of observer of digital government and one of the things that really struck me about what GDS and what people working in digital were doing was that they were delivering stuff. GDS in particular was really vocal about the work that it was doing, but it was showing the work. It wasn’t talking about abstract things or concepts or strategies. It was like, “Here’s a thing that we’ve done. Here’s how it works,” and that was really inspiring as someone outside this.

Kit Collingwood:
The phrase of strategy as delivery is banded around by everybody now, and it’s almost had its hay-day. People have almost stopped saying it in some circles, but I can’t describe how powerful that was to somebody like me who’d come out of the most bureaucratic part of Whitehall, you know, the middle of a policy team, a kind of strategic policy team, and I’d come out of- I’d worked for all three main political parties by that point, so I’d joined the government in 2009 and I’d worked for the coalition government which I was working for at that time.

So working with a lot of different ministers doing things like ministerial handover, loads of briefings, lots of policy documents, lots of consultation, very slow, sluggish pace. Great work being done but sluggish, and suddenly this idea that we could be released from writing constant documents to prove the worth of what we were doing was just ridiculously revolutionary, and I can’t  exactly describe why. It’s so obvious that you could get on with the work rather than spend a million years doing a 100-page business case, but to me that was like, “Oh, Christ, I can do this so differently.” And that’s why our strategy took three weeks and it was eight pages, and our business case was like ten pages.

The hidden bit about that was a lot of me putting my neck on the line saying, “No, no, no, I’m going to write this short. It’s going to be really short, really simple,” trying to simplify everything, and that’s where the effort went. It’s a funny analogy actually because it’s the same way that the design plans went as well. Government websites are massively overdesigned. Then GDS comes out with something that’s basically a white page with a green button in the middle with a bit of highlighting on it and everyone is like, “Oh. That’s how we’re going to design things now,” and they were like, “Yes, yes. We just basically don’t put much on the page.” Everyone is like, “Oh, right,” and it’s a really analogous approach to what I took to everything after, business cases, documentation, recruitment processes, governance. Everything went the same way. You don’t need to clutter it with all of that noise.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. It’s just so incredibly powerful because you were in government while this was happening, but I was reporting on the private sector and the private sector organisations weren’t doing this. It took an organisation within government or a group of people within government to drive this kind of simplicity home. And working in government now and understanding the complexities of it, it’s just unbelievable almost that that happened.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, and of course it peed people off. Of course it did. Everybody who had ever built one of those websites would be peed off because that’s your work being rubbished by these people, all of whom were pretty young. They were highly paid because they’d come from the private sector. They were off, siphoned off from Whitehall. They were other, and they were consistent. GDS were consistently othered by a lot of big government departments, and still are frankly. I don’t think you can be a rebel of that magnitude without peeing off a hell a lot of people.

What I took as my task was to try and- I’d been in a policy-making community that thought that digital government were a load of jeans-wearing hipsters. Now I was in a digital community that thought that policy-makers were a load of 50-year-old white fuddy-duddies, and elements of both of those things are true. You know, there are jeans wearing hipsters in digital government and there are white middle-aged fuddy-duddies in policy making but that doesn’t mean that we’re not trying to do the right thing.

So from that point, my mission was just trying  to connect people so that- you can’t do anything without trust so it’s just trying to increase the level of trust between the different communities that I was operating in.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. And how did you- because I guess we’ve talked a lot about the exemplars and the rapid pace of what was happening, the rapid pace of change, and touched on things like the controversies around that. But you’ve been in government for a long time and carried on that work, and how did you make it sustainable? How did you take that kind of environment and that thinking and sustain it into another department, into another role, into new teams?

Kit Collingwood:
I think it was a series of steps really. There were some mechanistic steps such as I began quite early to realise that government funding isn’t set up for digital. It is a bit better now, but at that point you did project works. You’re funded for a blob of thing and when the thing ended you weren’t funded for the thing anymore. Well, that was never going to work with things like CICD, so the continuous delivery of technology doesn’t work with that funding model. I blessedly realised that quite early and I started to work very closely with finance and commercial business partners to smooth out that path so that things like- this is so boring, but this was what got it done. CapEx versus OpEx was well-known and well chartered, so I didn’t want to have a drop in the team that was sharp between this thing called build and this thing called run. For me that’s still a false divide. Well, anybody who works in a DevOps way, that’s a false divide.

So I plotted with them to go from a full team size- say your team size is 10. Over time I would look to retain 4 of that team and I would build that into a bigger business case and I’d have like a slide down from one to the other. And putting in the groundwork with those people who are naturally mistrusting of something where it looks like you’re trying to game an existing process and just getting them to see what I was doing and these services- if you run these services while in perpetuity, you don’t have to then have this change request of £1m a year down the line.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, that comes in, yes, yes.

Kit Collingwood:
Because you’re continuously enhancing what you’re doing, but you can enhance it with a smaller team and it wasn’t always cheaper actually or it didn’t always look cheaper, but I knew that you’d then five years down the line wouldn’t have to buy the thing again because you’d have built it in-house. So it was a lot of donkey work of redrawing everything about how we do finance and commercial work and commercial partnering and governance and all that kind of stuff, so that was part of it.

Part of it was government catching up, so digital became not weird while I was a couple of years in, call it 2014, digital government was then effectively becoming sustainable in its own right. I had to fight a lot less hard to get the basics that I wanted to get done done. In the early days I had to have Mike Bracken come and advocate for the things I wanted to get done. It was that ridiculous. I didn’t need that by 2014, and at that point I moved to Ministry of Justice digital, the central digital team, and that had people like Dave Rogers in it who’s still there. He was great, and you kind of move from sensible support people to sensible support people.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. How do you kind of- well, it might sound a stupid question, but how do you identify and how do you end up working with people like that? How do you find allies?

Kit Collingwood:
How do I find allies?

Angus Montgomery:
Because I do get the sense there’s kind of a network of people in different departments now, and the names are probably well known of people who are doing good things who-

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. How did we all find each other? Sort of thing.

Angus Montgomery:
How did you all find each other? Yes.

Kit Collingwood:
I think we were all curious. So this community of- they’re well known on digital government Twitter. That community of people. You know, there’s probably a couple of hundred of us who’ve been around for- call it five years or more. Dave Rogers is one of them. All of the original GDSs are in there as well, although many of us have gone our separate ways.

For the ones who weren’t the real inception, so the Mikes and Toms, I think curiosity was a big bit of it. A lot of us found each other from being mutually introduced by well-networked people, so people like Tom would introduce us sometimes. Emer Coleman was another one for doing that. Kathy Settle. There were these people who knew people and they’d say, “Oh, so and so,” and then people would make some kind of connection between us and we’d almost invariably get on, so that was part of it.

Those of us who came out of Whitehall as opposed to being external hires found a natural empathy with each other because we’d been so frustrated by where we’d been and we were generally known as being pains in the bum basically where we are and we were quite grateful- I always think if you, in any meeting room, say you’ve got 12 people in a meeting room, you’re the one that feels really outré and the radical one. You’re just in the wrong room, and suddenly you’re in the right room and it’s just this huge comfort.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, that was going to be my next question is kind of, what are you looking for in these people? Because it sounds like a mix of sort of bravery in a sense of they’re willing to take a risk with something. They’ve got convictions, but also they have empathy.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. Well, I probably can’t swear in this podcast, can I?

Angus Montgomery:
I think you maybe could.

Kit Collingwood:
I’ll put it the opposite way. I only work with lovely people, that’s my rule, so three is something about being kind and warm that is at the core of the kind of person I would look to work with. But there’s something about- the way I put it is we want to reform the machine without breaking it, so all of those people are massively inpatient with the way the government works, massively frustrated, want to beat their heads against the wall but basically love the place, and if they leave they’ll always come back. They are either civil servants through and through in their DNA or you know that you’ll see them again in some point in the future, and it’s those people who care deeply about public service, it gives them that lovely balance of wanting to do the right thing by end users but without completely breaking the machine that they’re working in, and it’s a really hard balance to strike. But when you find it, it’s like gold dust. They’re the best people.

Angus Montgomery:
Right, okay. And the other thing I wanted to talk to you about was One Team Gov as well because you were one of the- were you one of the founders of One Team Gov? Is that right?

Kit Collingwood:
I was.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. Well, first of tell me why it was set up and what the purpose if it is.

Kit Collingwood:
One Team Gov was born out of my frustration at the lack of empathy between government professions, so it’s the ultimate realisation of my experience leaving policy-making and going into digital government really. And having observed and then worked in such a tribal system where if you weren’t us, you were them and you weren’t to be trusted. Well, id’ belonged to two tribes and I was like,  “Well, where’s the ‘us’ in the middle of all this ‘them’ then if everybody is ‘them’?”

So I spoke at a conference in March 2017 about- I gave a talk about data as it happens. That’s what I’m working on at the moment, and I was advised to go and see a guy speak after me called James Reeve who works at the Department for Education. I’d been told he was a great speaker and I listened to him and I spoke to him afterwards and we got on really well, and he was also coming out of policy making and going into a digital role, so the same thing that I’d done, what, five years previously he was now doing.

We talked about the experience of how policy-makers don’t get on with digital people in mutual mistrust, and we’d said we’d both been to professional events. We’d been to policy-making events and digital events, but there was no rebel event just for- where are all your generic rebels regardless of background? Where is anybody welcome?

Angus Montgomery:
This is how you find each other, was it?

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, exactly. And the tagline we often use for One Team Gov is if you’re tired of waiting for the revolution, start one yourself, not that we aim to start a revolution. That’s really self-important, but we did want to have an event where you would be welcomed as a reformer regardless of your background. You didn’t have to be some whizzy fast-streamer. You didn’t have to be anything really, and we just had a single event.

As we were coming up to the event we realised that we wanted to make it a community, so we, classic bit of partnership, Joe Lanman who works here as a designer designed us some branding and we built a little website and we got some regular meet-ups in which are still going now 18 months down the line. All we aimed to do was just to give a safe space to rebels, that’s all. So those people who don’t want to trash the machine but want to make it better, we just wanted to be the people that they could go to, and that was it. It was and is super simple really. [00:35:30] It’s based mainly on networks, on connections and on honest conversations with people. But the heartbeat of it is our meet-ups that we have in London, Cardiff, in the north, Scotland, Stockholm, Ottawa.

Angus Montgomery:
Internationally now.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. So it spreads internationally through those same networks of those positive rebels, and, yes, I’m really proud of it. It gives such a safe space to those people who are just sitting in the wrong meeting room being that single person. They just need to find the right meeting room and we’ve given them that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. One of the things that strikes me having talked about your time working in digital government is you’ve gone from, and this is kind of, I suppose, illustrative of digital government as a whole. You’ve gone from working on an exemplar, so a single service or a single digital touchpoint, to working in an area where you’re bringing together people from across different professions to look at kind of the much wider picture, and that to me kind of illustrates the broadening of digital government, how we think about it from kind of these single touch points to suddenly these whole services or these whole kind of policies. Is that kind of how you see your career having developed? Do you think it has kind of gone like that?

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. Yes, I think it has. It started off as a blob. We were almost a carbuncle in the beginning and seen by some as a carbuncle as well, and the world to make digital governments sustainable- well, you know, they say that it’ll be sustainable when we stop saying digital, but we’re not there yet. And to my mind, you’ll still need specialist technologists in government so you’ll always have a thing called a technology team or a digital team or something, so it’s not quite the ambition to never say digital ever again but it should evolve in meaning, I think, to encompass not just technologists but people who are interested in internet-enabled reform, which is kind of how I would characterise it.

So, yes, it’s definitely evolved from being something where you’re a heavily specialist team relatively separated from the rest of the organisation to something where every profession is welcome. One of the things that- I get a bit [00:40:26] twitchy talking about things that I’ve done that I’m proud of because I get self-conscious, but there are a few and of them there’s somebody called Kaz Hufton who was- she worked for the Office of Public Guardian and she worked in our call centre. She’s one of our operational people and we found her and she was an exceptionally good and is an exceptionally good product manager.

We found her in operations, and she proved very quickly that she was going to be better at this job than anybody else we could find and we made her a product manager, and I had to propose and then stand behind that decision. She needed to be promoted about three times because the grade difference between operations and digital was quite tricky at that point, but we did that and it proved something. It proved that if you’re this thing called operations, you don’t have to stay there forever just as I hadn’t in policy. You can transition your career actually, and people come into digital and learn how to do product development. You don’t need a million years to learn how to do it. You need a lot of smarts, a lot of empathy, very open ears, and then professional skills that you learn down the line.

I was so glad that we gave her that break, and that’s something that I’ve done consistently ever since is not assume that if somebody is a policy-maker that they can never be a digital person or vice versa. It’s the same reason I started One Team Gov is it’s kind of this you don’t have to stay in that tribe actually. You can go and work across, and I suppose where I am now working in data is a natural extension of that because to my mind, there needs to be a data leap for government in the same way that there was a digital leap for government from 2011 onwards.

Data people are still a little bit off in a silo in a corner being nerds. They’re even siphoned off from product teams, so one of the missions that I’ve had in DWP is to work intersectionally between digital data and technology so that we blur those professional boundaries. Somebody like a data scientist is a classic- you know, if you call them sort of a coder analyst, they’re already a technologist and a data professional, so why do they have to sit over in that corner? Why can’t they come and be in this product team? And embedding data scientists into product teams has been one of the things that we’ve done in DWP to absolutely great effect.

So again it’s trying to fight the good fight every day for people, dropping their assumptions about what somebody can and can’t do.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, yes, yes. And just before we finish off, I’d like to ask you, I suppose potentially at the risk of making you feel uncomfortable, a couple of questions about you and how you operate, I suppose. You said earlier in this conversation that when you’re taking about going on the exemplar you didn’t know much about digital but you knew how to lead, and you are one of the people in this world who’s seen, I suppose, as a role model, as a leader. What sort of behaviours do you hope that you’re showing, that you hope that people kind of pick up? What do you hope that you’re role modelling that people will pick up from you?

Kit Collingwood:
I’m kind to people.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s the best behaviour.

Kit Collingwood:
You can never have too much kindness in the world, I think, and I think I’m pretty consistently kind. I will say that about myself. I’m very willing to re-examine what is a yes and what’s a no because I’m very dogged in the pursuit of what I believe to be right, and I think that’s a good role model for the bit of government I’m in because you have to be fairly persistent to get things done and I’ve never taken a no to be a final no. I’ve always been able to chase down what I believe to be the right answer. I don’t know if that’s- maybe I’m ideological, but I’ve always tried to fight for the right thing.

I hope that I am seen as being passionate about diversion and inclusion because I am. Although I’m a woman in technology and a gay woman in technology and a gay woman parent in technology, my interests do go beyond that and I would hope that I have given other people space to progress where they thought they might not have that space. So inclusiveness with age, grade boundary, professional boundary, colour, disability, I hope that I’m not deluding myself, that that is something I’m known for.

And as I said, I do try and give my time to try and make the place a bit better, so things like One Team Gov and mentoring people, that kind of thing. If I were to leave an impression of myself, I hope that that would be in it.

Angus Montgomery:
And who do you look to as a role model or who inspires you at the moment? Either within this world or outside it, I suppose.

Kit Collingwood:
Am I allowed a few?

Angus Montgomery:
Of course. Just like a dinner party thing.

Kit Collingwood:
My girlfriend would have to go on that list. One of the most amazing product people I’ve ever observed and the kindest person.

Angus Montgomery:
Just for the sake- who’s your girlfriend?

Kit Collingwood:
Kylie Havelock.

Angus Montgomery:
Kylie Havelock.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. Yes, she’s taught me a lot about kindness and about diversion and inclusion as well and a million other things. My kids inspire me all the time. They’re not constrained by what anybody expects of them, and I love that about them. I try and learn from them and try and- they’ve made me challenge a lot of my assumptions about myself and about the world.

And then professionally, I’d always say Lara Sampson who works at the DWP who is the most consummately brilliant civil servant I have ever worked with and has remained that to this day. She wins the prize. She is incredible and inspirational.

I would always say Tom Loosemore as well who’s effectively very quietly, without anybody knowing it, mentored me for about six years without ever asking for anything in return and has quietly been responsible for several of my career moves without ever taking credit for it or asking for anything back. So given that this will be public, I’ll say publically thank you to him. He’s done a lot for me without anybody ever knowing that, so I’ll always be grateful.

Angus Montgomery:
And just finally, if there’s one piece of advice you could give to someone, so say there’s someone in your situation now going back, what was it, six years ago, kind of in a role. You were in a policy role were you were kind of thinking, “This isn’t really what I’m interested in. This isn’t giving me the empathy, the satisfaction that I want.” What advice would you give to that person that you've learned over the last seven or eight years?

Kit Collingwood:
Wow. I’d say find a hero. It’s always good to have somebody to look up to think, you know, what would so-and-so do in this situation? I think it’s always good to see a perspective that isn’t your own.

I’d say a good dose of sort of mindfulness for want of a better word, so realising where you are on the frustration versus action scale. There can be a feeling amongst some civil servants in particular that they’re so frustrated the only thing they can do is leave, and I’ve seen many people go their way and it’s not a bad thing to do at all. It’s the only thing to do for a lot of people, but there’s this tipping point and if you’re on this tipping point of, “Oh my God, I want the world to be better but I want to stay and make it better,” I’d always say contact One Team Gov because you’ll find some likeminded people as well.

But I’d also say to them, if any of those people are listening, you’re not alone. So many civil servants are frustrated. The civil service is frustrating. It will always be, but it’s the best place in the world, my belief is, and if you’re on that tipping point where you’re incredibly frustrated but believe you can do something better, it’s not just you. And again if you’re that one person in a room of 12 who’s just in the wrong room, go and find a different room and you can start to feel more normal, and there are so many lateral moves you can make to get that done and you might just start to be reinvigorated like I was.

Angus Montgomery:
And those rebels are easier to find now.

Kit Collingwood:
Very easy to find now. Yes, so Clare Moriarty is one of them and she’s got one of the toughest jobs going in government at the moment. Jeremy Heywood was one as well. He was one of the people who gave me advice, again when he didn’t have to. A very tough time for him that showed me that truly he was on the side of the revolutionaries. He wanted to see reform as well, so you can move up the pay scale and up the ladder and be a rebel as well. You can do that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. Kit Collingwood, thank you very much for joining us.

Kit Collingwood:
Thank you for your time.

Angus Montgomery:
Thank you. Thank you very much for joining us for that episode of the GDS podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to listen to any more of what we’re doing, then please go to wherever it is that you listen to or download your podcasts and subscribe to the GDS podcast because we’ve got lots more exciting stuff coming up this year, so we hope you’ll join us again soon. Thank you very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #4 - a review of 2018

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #4 - a review of 2018

December 7, 2018

In this episode, senior writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart look back at the year at GDS.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS, and today I’m joined by Sarah Stewart, who is also a senior writer at GDS.

Sarah Stewart:
Hello, and thanks for having me.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s really great to have you here, Sarah. I mean, we spend all week sitting opposite each other across a desk and now we’re going to sit across from each other and speak into microphones.

Sarah Stewart:
I quite like the idea that I’m assuming the role of guest speaker with specialist knowledge of any one subject.

Angus Montgomery:
You are the one with the expertise here, let’s face it.
The reason that it’s me and Sarah doing this podcast… If you’ve listened to GDS podcasts before you’ll know that what we’ve done previously is, kind of, either Sarah or I have interviewed an expert speaker, so we’ve had Neil Williams on GOV.UK, Terence Eden on open standards and emerging technology, and we’ve also spoken to the GDS Women’s Network.

But, what we want to do with this podcast, because it is the final podcast of 2018, is do a look at the year in review at GDS, what GDS has done over the last year, the things it’s achieved, the things it’s launched and kind of just go back through those and our take on them, we’ve even got some audio clips from the people who were involved as well.

I think Sarah and I, because we work across GDS and our job is to help people, kind of, tell the story of their work, we’ve kind of had a ringside seat for a lot of this stuff.

GDS’s work has kind of been split, broadly, into three themes this year, and this podcast is going to split into those three themes as well. Those three themes are:

Sarah Stewart:
Transformation; collaboration and; innovation.

Angus Montgomery:
Full marks for that.

Sarah Stewart:
Thank you very much.

Angus Montgomery:
So, transformation, collaboration and innovation is, kind of, how GDS talks about its work. when we first started to use those terms, at Sprint ’18, which was the big event that we held back in May, where we, kind of, talked to the rest of government and the rest of the wider public about what we were doing. So, let’s get into it…

Oh yes, sorry, just to… Someone who did also speak at Sprint, as you well know, and you’ve worked closely with him throughout this year…

Sarah Stewart:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden, and here’s what he had to say about us:

[Audio starts]
‘Though transformation innovation and collaboration you’ve not only saved billions of pounds across government, but you’ve changed the way people interact with government every day. What you do really matters, it really does genuinely improve people’s experience of government in their day-to-day lives.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
Oliver Dowden there really summing up what GDS does and why it’s here, and it’s really nice to hear that sort of thing from senior backing.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, exactly. I think the really encouraging thing about having Oliver Dowden overseeing the work of GDS is that he really understands the link up between creating a modern government and involving the tech sector. We have to be honest about the limits of government, we don’t have all the answers, but what we do have, in this country, is an amazing tech sector that’s attracting billions of pounds of inward investment. We’ve got some amazing companies just literally down the road, of course we should be partnering with them. It just makes sense for us to all link up, the tech sector, the public sector, and push our digital agenda forward.

Angus Montgomery:
I think he’s been really heavily involved in GDS, particularly recently with the innovation stuff as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, I suppose we’ll come to that in a bit, but he’s been really behind… He announced the Innovation Strategy, I think the emerging themes from that will really address things like how we connect more with the private sector and how we focus on upskilling existing civil servants, and also policy makers so that they understand emerging tech. I was thinking about it the other day, about how if people are buying technology, so people are utilising technologies in government, those people who are buying also need to understand what those technologies do.
So, in the same way that you’d go to the doctor and say, “I’ve got this ailment” and the doctor prescribes the information and the medicine, and you expect them to know how it works as well, it’s not just going in and taking something off the shelf. So, I think that’s a really encouraging thing that’s he’s championing as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant. Top marks Oliver.

So, the first theme we’re going to discuss is transformation. We published a Transformation Strategy at the beginning of 2017, and I think 2017 and 2018 have been the years when we’ve really started to deliver against it. I think we’re now halfway through it as well?

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right.

Angus Montgomery:
Growing common components is a big thing, because I think one of the aims of the Transformation Strategy was to drive common components across government, and by common components, obviously, we mean things that can be built once and used again and again by departments, like GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay. This year has seen some really impressive examples of services using those things.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they’re using GOV.UK Pay to help people who need to pay for emergency passports. Also, increasingly, GP surgeries are using GOV.UK Notify to remind patients of their appointments, which I really need. I mean, it’s improving efficiencies as well, because of the amount of people who don’t turn up to appointments and just that little reminder is so helpful, and it’s on your phones.

Angus Montgomery:
They always show those dire warnings in GP surgeries, don’t they, of the number people who’ve missed appointments that month. I know GP’s surgeries aren’t over resourced a lot of the time, so it’s a real drain on them if that happens. I think things that will prevent that from happening are amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
The really cool thing about these common components, and especially Notify, is that it’s really meeting people where they’re at. People are looking at their phones, people spend so much time on their phones it makes sense to have that reminder to your phone. It’s just efficient and it just works. So, I’m not surprised that take-up has been so incredible.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the other things that’s quite exciting is because a lot of these common components are reaching maturity now, like they’ve been around for a year or so, but what’s starting to happen is you’re starting to see services using them all together. I think in the Disclosure and Barring Service are one of the first people to do that, and we’ve got some audio:

[Audio starts]
‘We’ve relied heavily on GaaP components. We’re the first service to integrate with three of the GaaP components all at once.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
There you go, the first service to integrate all three GaaP components at one. So, I think that’s really exciting, seeing these things not used in isolation but seeing whole services built on these things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, and that’s been a huge emphasis this year, end-to-end service design, and if you can incorporate those common components… It just makes sense, doesn’t it, going offline and online might be an option for your particular service, but it’s nice to have that option to integrate more if you need them to.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, and making it easy for the teams as well. I think if you’re starting to use Pay and Notify platform as a service you, as a developer working on that team, have got all this stuff just to hand that you can build a service really quickly around. That was, kind of, always the government’s platform vision, and it’s really amazing to see that starting to happen.

Sarah Stewart:
I can’t remember where I was, actually, I went to do some filming this year and think it might be with DVSA, but they talked about how it’s not just having common components that you can just take off the shelf and your relationship with GDS is done, there is a continued relationship. They invite feedback and they want to support you in your use of it. So, I think we’ve done quite a lot of work in terms of… Maybe helping isn’t the right word, but like guiding people and being a supportive friend of take-up and how they’re going to integrate it into their systems.

Angus Montgomery:
Again, that is, to me, exactly that. That’s one of the reason these things are so amazing, is because they’re designed and built for government, but you’re not just designing and building something and handing it over to a team and saying, “Go ahead and use that.” You have a relationship. If you’re using Pay you have a relationship with that Pay team, you can give your feedback on it and they can make the product better based on your feedback. It’s this symbiotic thing which is really cool.
The other thing that we should probably mention, which happened, I think, a couple of weeks ago, is that GOV.UK Notify won a civil service award, or the team that build it.

Sarah Stewart:
Wowser, that’s really cool.

Angus Montgomery:
Wowsers indeed. A big hats off to that team, who are awesome. They won an award, I think, for operational delivery. But, basically, the award recognised the work that that team has done, not just to develop a product but also to support it and work with government services to make sure that Notify is a great thing to use, so that’s really cool. But one of the things we’ve started to do a lot more this year is work more closely with local authorities. What is it about local authorities? Why should we work closely with them?

Sarah Stewart:
I suppose, it’s because they’re the ones who are delivering user-focused services, and because the needs of the people that they’re dealing with are so complex, and the services that they use are so complex as well. So, of course it makes sense to help them simplify how they’re interacting and give them the tools that make that process a lot more straightforward and a lot more efficient.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s brilliant. A lot of the challenges that the government has had that GDS has been working on, those are replicated in local authorities and, like you say, they’re the ones that are, kind of, delivering a lot of these services, like blue badges and collecting bins and things, the things that, kind of, really rile you up if they’re not done properly. So, GDS being able to get involved in that is really exciting.
I think there’s a clip from one of the local authorities we’ve been working with, and they use the Digital Marketplace, that’s Hackney Borough Council, and they’re doing some really exciting stuff as well.

[Audio starts]
‘One of my personal favourite projects that we’ve used Digital Marketplace for in the last year was a piece of work to examine what the opportunity is to use digital to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers, which was incredibly valuable for the council and for our residents, but also could develop a true partnership as well as long at some longer-term opportunities to use technology very differently.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
That’s Matthew Cain who’s, I think, head of digital at Hackney Borough Council, and that’s a really interesting example of the kind of thing a local authority does. The recruitment of foster carers and using digital, and in that case a digital marketplace, to improve something like that is really cool.

Sarah Stewart:
The other thing that’s going to support that, so it’s not just an ad-hoc relationship that we’re having with local authorities, is the publication of the Local Digital Declaration as well, which shows our commitment to working with local authorities across the whole of the public sector. I think it has 100 signatories on it now?

Angus Montgomery:
I think there are 100 signatures.

So, we’re one of the co-publishers, I think with the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government and various local authorities, and there are something like 100 signatories already. Yes, it’s a commitment from all the signatories that they will follow these principles of digital development, which are the things that you would hope they’re talking about, like focusing on user needs, using the right technology, and all that sort of thing.

Yes, you’re right, it’s really interesting. I think the world of local authorities is so big, there are so many and they’re delivering so many different, often quite small and challenging, services. It, kind of, seems like a world that is really hard to get a handle on. I think that it’s really interesting to see GDS approaching that in a kind of structured way, through the Local Digital Declaration, but also giving really tangible things that can help, like common components. It’s amazing to see the progress that has already happened with it as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Just on that, I used to work for a charity and when people were interacting with their local authorities it wasn’t just the case that they were going just for one thing, they had a host of different needs that needed to be addressed, and local authorities are the people who are servicing those needs and making sure that all of those things get done.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, 2018 was a year in which GDS launched quite a few things and updated quite a few things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the GDS Design System.

Angus Montgomery:
The GDS Design System, which I think is really… This appeals to the geek side of me because this is, basically, a collection of all the patterns and components that a designer or a front-end developer and, for the most part, would use to create a government service. So, you’ve got things there telling you about how to design a button, which typeface to use, which colours to use-

Sarah Stewart:
Why is that important?

Angus Montgomery:
It’s important because, in much the same way as GaaP components, it’s about making it easier for those teams to use something so that they don’t have to design their own button style or design their own dropdown menu, or whatever. There is one that they can just pull the code from and put it into their service.

Also, then it provides consistency. So, if all the government services are using the same things… And the things in the design system are heavily user researched, so, it’s the kind of GDS principle of, like, “Do the hard work for service teams, but also provide a consistent experience across all things.” If you want to lose an hour or two then go and have a mess about in it, because there’s something really cool stuff to find and look at.

Sarah Stewart:
The geek emerges.

Angus Montgomery:
Exactly.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a year of launching and relaunching at GDS, so we introduced a new spend controls process and we’re rewriting the service standard, which you know more about than I do, Angus.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, the service standard is really exciting, and we’ve blogged quite a bit about this already, I think Stephen Gill and Lou Downe, who are both working on it, have written quite a lot. The Digital Service Standard has been around for quite some time, and was initially developed, primarily, to help develop digital touchpoints and digital services, and is focused on that. The idea of the rewrite is to help government and teams within government to think about whole end-to-end services, what that means and how they can help the user do something from the very start of a service to the very end of it.

It’s going to be really exciting and interesting to see what that means and how that works. There are quite a lot of blog posts about it as well, if you should go to the GDS blog to find out more, as you should do for all of the things that we’ve discussed.

Sarah Stewart:
Excellent plug.

Angus Montgomery:
Excellent plug... there is plenty of amazing writing about all of these things, even if I do say so myself!

Sarah Stewart:
I’ll tell you what else is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
What else is exciting, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
GOV.UK is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
GOV.UK is never not exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a big year for the team behind GOV.UK because they’ve been doing some super-cool work with organising their content. So, they’ve been doing supervised machine learning to organise all of the content on GOV.UK, or in certain sections they’re organising their content. That means that we can do cool things, like voice activation.

And the example is, if you speak into a Google Voice system and say, “How old do I need to be to drive a car?” the information that is surfaced is GOV.UK content, and this content is the best, it’s the most authoritative.

Angus Montgomery:
That is amazing. I think what is really amazing is, like you say, they sorted out the structure of the sites and then they did the fixing the basics, solving hard problems and all that stuff that GDS says all the time. This is a really good example of that. Like, sorting out the content, which was a really hard and a really challenging thing to do, but having done that they can do really exciting whizzy stuff on it. We were discussing the word whizzy just yesterday, I think.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, the amount of times…

Angus Montgomery:
But, it is whizzy. I think you said it was a public-school boy word, which I’m pretty-

Sarah Stewart:
Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

Angus Montgomery:
No offence taken.

But, it is whizzy stuff, like voice activation and like the step-by-step work that they’re doing as well, which kind of takes all the content involved in a particular service, like you used the learning to drive example, and puts that all in order for the user to be able to navigate really quickly and easily, and to understand where the are in the process.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s so brilliant, because when you think about things, life impacting things, like learning how to drive, it can be so daunting. If you can just shine a light in the darkness and say, “Look, these are the eight steps that you need to get your driving license, let’s tackle step one. Let’s do it all in the same journey, and at least you can tick that off.” How amazing is that? You don’t need to rootle around the internet, you don’t need to Google the internet, that’s another phrase we’ve been using a lot recently, to find the answers. It’s just all in one place. It’s bliss.

Angus Montgomery:
It is, and it’s great. It has been a really big year for GOV.UK and it’s really amazing to see them developing this stuff and the new stuff that’s happening.

Plug time as well, if you want to find out more about this, we did a podcast with Neil Williams, who, up until recently, was head of GOV.UK, he left in September, I think it was, to go and be head of digital at Croydon Council, but before he left we recorded a podcast with him in which he said this:

[Audio starts]
‘Absolutely, we’re iterating widely again, I’d say, so it’s back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re actually able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly, again. So, some of the stuff we’re doing now is actually greenfield stuff, again, we’re back to a lot of the ideas we had, way back when in the early days of GDS, around making the publishing system really intuitive and giving data intelligence to publishers so that they can understand how services are performing and see where to prioritise and get that really rich insight about how their stuff, as a department, is working for users.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, yes, we talked a lot about transformation, and it’s time to talk…

Sarah Stewart:
About collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
About collaboration.

Sarah Stewart:
What do we mean by collaboration?

Angus Montgomery:
What do we mean? Well, collaboration, basically, means working together, which is the thing-

Sarah Stewart:
I do actually know the answer to this, sorry, in case the audience don’t think I don’t know what collaborative means.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s just be clear, this is an interview trope which is to ask a question that you know the answer to in order to illicit a comment from the person that you’re talking to. Just because we’re asking each other these things doesn’t mean that…

Sarah, tell me about GDS and what it does… We do actually know what this means, or I think we know what this means, anyway.

Collaboration, in order to answer your question, Sarah, basically means working together, which is, of course, what GDS has done since the very beginning. So, GDS was set up to work with and across government to help them develop digital services, transform what they’re doing and make things better for users. We can’t do this stuff unless we are collaborating, unless we are working together.

We mentioned Sprint earlier as well, which is the big event that we held back in May, where GDS and other people from across movement talked about the really cool things that they were doing, and there was a strong collaboration angle throughout that.

And there were a lot of really good case studies, interesting case studies of work that was going on. After the day we were looking back on Twitter and talking to people who’d been at the event and they were saying, “This is one that made me cry, and I didn’t expect to,” “I went to this workshop, I came out and I was so emotional that I was weeping.” It was a workshop about open standards, and this was the case study that they used:

[Audio starts]
‘Hands off. He’s got a belt on, get his belt. Up… Okay. In you come, fella. Alright.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, for the benefit of people who obviously couldn’t see what was happening, because that was a video clip and we played it on a podcast, which is an audio medium, so it was quite a lot of indiscrete splashing, but what was actually happening there was that was someone being rescued-

Sarah Stewart:
A real person.

Angus Montgomery:
That was a field video-clip, or however you describe it, from the RNLI, rescuing someone from the River Thames. The reason that was played in an open standards workshop is open standards is super important when it comes to things like emergency services, because you might get various emergency services, like the police or RNLI or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency responding to various incidents at the same time, and they need to be able to share information about those incidents really, really quickly.

Sarah Stewart:
The profound takeaway from this is, obviously, people’s lives are being saved, but the launch time for lifeboats is reduced from 10-15 minutes to under 2 minutes.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s incredible.

Sarah Stewart:
If you can think of what can happen, even in two minutes, to someone who’s in the water for that long…

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, falling in the Thames in December, and you don’t want to be in there for 10-15 minutes. So it’s amazing.

I mean, obviously this got people really emotional because you’re seeing a video of someone, literally, getting pulled out of the Thames, and the work that you have done to develop and open standard or to develop a common system for sharing information, which seems like a really abstract thing, but then you see the real-world example of this stuff and that’s really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
We spoke to Terence Eden, who’s the open standards lead at GDS, about open standards, and if you want to find out more listen to that podcast. There are some things that you think are so mundane, in a theoretical sense, but the real-world practical outcome is so so important. So, I highly recommend you listen to that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, another plug for the podcast, which is a good thing.

Also, one of the big things, staying on this collaboration theme, that we’ve been doing is helping government work together and build capability through things, like the GDS Academy, which has gone from strength to strength this year.

Sarah Stewart:
There have been some big milestones. We’re nearing 10,000, would we call them students? Colleagues?

Angus Montgomery:
Students/colleagues/civil servants/people trained through the-

Sarah Stewart:
Those with a thirst to learn. We hit almost 10,000 who have passed through the GDS academy and about 1,000 of those students have been through the Agile foundation course.

Angus Montgomery:
This is really important work because it’s showing people the opportunities that a digital government brings for their skills and capabilities, and for their jobs as well. I mean, people are training in new and interesting jobs because of the GDS Academy, and that’s really exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
What I think is super-cool about it is that people can feel left behind when things move forward and when people move from different processes. Digital can be quite a daunting thing and something that they feel like might be a stumbling block to them or might prevent them from continuing their work in the civil service, but what the academy does is say, “Actually, we can support you in your knowledge and we can support you in your growth, and if you want to learn about all these really cool and interesting things that we’re doing, and the ways of working that are open to you as well.”
So, we’re not just abandoning people who don’t have those digital expertise, we’re saying, “Here is a foundation course that will help you get up to speed and give you the confidence to go and bring it back to your departments and deploy it.”

Angus Montgomery:
You’re right. I think one of the things about digital, and not just in government, I suppose, but in general, is that it can be seen as quite a clique-y thing, it’s like, “If you understand this digital thing then you’re part of it, but if you don’t then,” you know, as you say, “You might get left behind.” The idea that we’re, through the GDS Academy, able to bring people into this is really cool, and makes it not a clique-y thing but make it a big, kind of, community, potentially, of civil servants, and that’s really cool.

Like we say, we’re approaching 10,000 students, we’ve got new academy classrooms in the GDS building, I think just the floor below us as we speak.

Sarah Stewart:
It looks very swish.

Angus Montgomery:
Which does look very swish, indeed.

They did a pop-up in Canada as well, which was quite good.

Sarah Stewart:
Did they?

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, they went over there and spoke to the Canadian government about what they’d done at the GDS Academy, and after that the Canadian government set up their own. So, there you go…

And it’s been an exciting year for GOV.UK Verify as well, the government’s online identity assurance programme, because the standards and guidelines which currently underpin the way Verify works are now being opened up to the private sector to build on. And what this means is that in principle, the same digital identity platform that helps you check your state pension could in future also help you check your savings account too and other things that you do in your kind of day to day non-government life so that’s really exciting as well.

So... we’ve done transformation…

Sarah Stewart:
We’ve done collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s move onto innovation.

Sarah Stewart:
Which I feel is my specialist subject. Do you want to do the music?

Angus Montgomery:
What? Is this innovation music? Oh…

Sarah Stewart:
No, that was Mastermind.

Angus Montgomery:
Sorry, that reference just went straight over my head. Sarah Stewart…

Sarah Stewart:
...on innovation. So, 2018 has been a big year for innovation, and not just in this government but in governments all across the world. So, in summer, I’m sure you heard, that the French government announced a £1.5 billion investment in research into artificial intelligence. The Singaporean government, or actually the prime minister said, that innovation was an obsession for them, not just an interest, an obsession. Countries like Norway are doing some really interesting things, actually, the prime minister launched this programme calling it a kind of Tinder…

Angus Montgomery:
Nice.

Sarah Stewart:
So the government is helping clean tech industries reach out to international markets.

Angus Montgomery:
To literally hook up with those markets.

Sarah Stewart:
Exactly. Oh God…

But, what we’re interested in is the UK, sorry, let me bring you back. Let’s land at Heathrow and tell you about what’s happening in this country. So earlier this year we published a survey of all emerging tech activity across government, so we know the extent and where innovative activity with emerging tech is happening. So, we know, for example, like we mentioned earlier, that GOV.UK is using supervised machine learning, as is the UK Hydrographic Office, and that BEIS, DFID and Defra are using big data and sensors to improve agricultural yield and protect crops.

Angus Montgomery:
So, lots of cool stuff happening, but I think one of the things that we talk about a lot that’s really interesting is that all this work going on in isolation is great and really exciting, but for it to have an effect you kind of need to have an overarching strategy, you need to be able to do it in the right way you need to be able to make sure that you’re not just chasing after the latest shiny thing…

Sarah Stewart:
Whizzy things.

Angus Montgomery:
Whizzy things, to make it a theme. Sarah, you interviewed Terence Eden, as you’ve already mentioned, for the podcast that we published a couple of months ago, and Terence had some words about this as well:

[Audio starts]
‘How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at the new fashionable tech, because it’s new and fashionable?’
‘It’s a good question. The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is ‘The future is already here, it’ just not very equally distributed yet.’ That’s not really the case. The future isn’t here. We’ve got glimpses that if we can build this huge dataset, then we will be able to artificial intelligence the blockchain into the cloud and magic will happen. Yes, you’re right, people just go a little starry eyed…’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, Sarah, how do we avoid people being all starry-eyed and just chasing after the latest whizzy new technology?

Sarah Stewart:
We use a strategy, Angus, which is exactly what the minister announced after the publication of the survey. So, it was good that we had a landscape and we had a much better understanding of the emerging tech that was being used across government, but we needed to round it up with a strategy. To ensure that we’re moving forward in a clear and sensible way the strategy was the thing.

So, GDS is leading this, but the minister has been attending quite a few engagement meetings to get the expertise from tech leaders, academics and practitioners in the field about what this strategy needs to address, because we don’t want to get into the situation where, in five years’ time or ten years’ time, we’re playing catch-up. So, I think that’s going to be published in the spring.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, I look forward to it and look forward to seeing what we have to say in that.
One more thing, we talked about this earlier on but the idea of the academy and GDS as a whole, upskilling and helping build capability across the civil service and digital, we’ve been taking that into emerging technologies as well, through the pilot Emerging Technology Development Programme. Sarah, you spoke again to Terence Eden about this, because I think he’s one of the first people who went through the pilot.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. The idea is that there are going to be people who are skilled up and specialists in emerging technologies, so they can go into departments across government to help other teams and spreading the word. The pilot was run earlier this year, and you’re right, Terence Eden was on there, and here’s what he thought of it:

[Audio starts]
‘I think that’s what the Emerging Technology Development Programme is about, is making sure that civil servants can code, making sure that they understand how they would build an AI system, understand what the ethics are, learn about what the reasons for and against using a bit of technology like distributed ledgers are, because otherwise we end up with people just buying stuff which isn’t suitable.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, super important stuff. Just one final, but super important, part of the innovation work that GDS has been doing over the last year is the GovTech Catalyst Challenge.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. This is a £20m fund which is designed to incentivise tech companies to help the public sector with challenges that they may face.

Angus Montgomery:
So, two really cool things about this is it’s dealing with really interesting public sector challenges, like how do you deal with loneliness and isolation in rural areas, or how do you help track a waste chain across its whole process or how do you help to keep firefighters safe when they’re out on emergency calls? But, what it’s also doing is bringing in the interesting emerging technologies, so things like artificial intelligence or location sensing or wearable tech and, kind of, using them on these specific examples, but by doing that it’s proving the value to the wider public sector as well.
So, if you use that emerging technology in one particular incident or in one particular incidence you might then find other applications for it in the public sector. So, it’s kind of like a testing ground for stuff as well, which is really exciting.

I think what is really cool about this is that the GovTech Catalyst Fund has been going now for some time and, as you mentioned, there have been a number of challenges launched. We’re starting to see potential where it could tackle real issues, like I mentioned earlier about keeping firefighters safe.

Sarah Stewart:
The other really cool thing as well is that it’s a London team, so the team is based in London, but the challenges that are coming in are not solely London based challenges, they’ve come from all over the country as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s hear from Wales.

[Audio starts]
‘If I was to wear the tracking device and I was committed to a building it would make me feel safer, because I know that if any of my other communications fail or if I’m needing assistance then they’re going to know where I am.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So that’s Mid and West Wales Fire Service, who have a GovTech Challenge competition out for the moment, for tracking for firefighters when they’re out on emergency calls.

Sarah Stewart:
The other beautiful thing, if I can call it beautiful, if I can call boosting the economy beautiful, is that it gives small, kind of, nimble SMEs a chance to do business with government. So, it’s not just monopolised by massive companies, it’s really helping the burgeoning GovTech sector to grow, and this is one very tangible way in which is happening.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s helping the right people work on the right problems, which is what it’s all about.
That was innovation. So, we’ve done it all.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, we’ve done it.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve done transformation, collaboration and innovation, and that was an overview of 2018 at GDS.
What was your favourite moment of 2018, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
Good question. I think it was April, when the late Jeremy Heywood, came in to talk to the organisation. I was impressed by the amount of stuff that he knew because his portfolio must’ve been enormous. To know in very precise detail exactly what’s happening in every part of government was really inspiring, not only from a digital perspective, but also as a civil servant. You just think, “Wow, that’s colossal intellect deployed just brilliantly.”

Angus Montgomery:
Yes I think I’d agree with you about when Lord Heywood came in. Like you said, he was such an impressive speaker and showed such a massive intellect, but also a real interest and passion about what GDS was doing. Like you say, his brief was so massive that he would’ve had to have a handle on so many different parts of government, for him to come in and be really interested, engaged and talking to individual people and talking to the organisation as a whole was super-impressive. So, I think that was definitely a highlight for me.

I think the other highlight was something we’ve talked about quite a lot, which was Sprint, which was super hard work, I think, for everyone involved, but really amazing and really amazing to see people at GDS and people from across government get the opportunity to talk about the work that they’ve been doing and see the reception that that got. Having a workshop about open standards that left people in tears and things like that were really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
For the right reasons.

Angus Montgomery:
So that was really cool.

Next year, what are you most looking forward to?

Sarah Stewart:
Spring, because in spring the Innovation Strategy will be published.

Angus Montgomery:
Ah, the strategy.

Sarah Stewart:
The strategy… How about you?

Angus Montgomery:
For me, I guess, it’s a bit of a cop out answer, but more of the same. I think what I really value about GDS is that there are lots of organisations that use words like transformation, collaboration and innovation, and other words like that, but use them in quite intangible ways, and just don’t really deliver against them. I think what we’ve proved over the last year is that we are delivering loads of really tangible, amazing things.

There are things that we and other parts of the government have done this year that are changing people’s lives. That, to me, is the reason GDS exists. We talk to the talk but we’re delivering this stuff as well, we’re actually doing stuff, and more tangible things. The Innovation Strategy is a part of that, obviously, and seeing tangible outcomes from that, more people using common components, more services that have been transformed in a way that it’s going to help people go about their lives and make people’s lives better.

I think just the stuff that we’ve done over this last year has been brilliant, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of its next year.

So, that wraps up 2018 and the 2018 year in review podcast.

Sarah Stewart:
What a year it’s been.

Angus Montgomery:
What a year it’s been.

Sarah Stewart:
Wait. We’ve forgotten to mention the most exciting thing that’s going to happen in 2019.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s that?

Sarah Stewart:
The continuation of the GDS podcast series.

Angus Montgomery:
Of course. As I mentioned before, this is the fourth episode of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done, and we’ve got plenty more exciting ones planned. So, if you’ve enjoyed this one and you enjoyed the previous ones that we’ve done, then go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to the GDS podcasts because we’ve got a ton more exciting stuff happening next year.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Oh yes.Thank you very much for listening. Thank you for joining me, Sarah.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh, you’re welcome.

Angus Montgomery:
And goodbye.

Sarah Stewart:
Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #3 - an interview with the GDS Women’s Network

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #3 - an interview with the GDS Women’s Network

December 3, 2018

In this episode, we talk to Liz Lutgendorff and Rosa Fox from the GDS Women's Network.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the third edition of the government digital service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery and I’m a senior writer at GDS, and for this episode of the podcast we're going to be talking to Liz Lutgendorff and Rosa Fox from the GDS Women’s Network, so thank you very much both for joining me.

Rosa Fox:
Thank you for having us.

Angus Montgomery:
Before I start, if I could just ask you, because we're going to go on to talk about the Women’s Network and what it does and why it was set up, and why it exists in GDS, and we’re loosely talking about it because 2018 is the centenary of women suffrage in the UK, and in fact I think on the 21st November 1918 women could be elected to parliament for the first time, so I think in February there was universal suffrage, or women suffrage in 2018, in November women could be elected to parliament, so we’re hoping that this will be released at about that date so that’s why we’re here.

But before we go into that, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you ended up at GDS and what you do. Liz, if you could let me know, how long have you been at GDS and what do you do here?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’ve been here almost seven years now, so I am like a veteran of GDS.

Angus Montgomery:
Since the beginning.

Liz Lutgendorff:
Almost the beginning, so I’m pre-GDS but not pre-GOV.UK, I think, so I was brought on in January 2012. Originally I was looking at this site called Business Link, if anyone remembers it, to analyse the user needs to add them to what was then the beta of GOV.UK. I was with the content team for about four or five years, and then I worked with the GOV.UK programme as a whole, trying to make us more efficient and use data better, and then January this year I moved to Verify to do the same thing, so looking at data analysis, how the programme works, things like that.

Angus Montgomery:
Cool, and Rosa, what do you do and how long have you been at GDS?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, so I’ve been at GDS for nearly three years, and I work as a software developer. I was on GOV.UK for two years doing mostly back end development in a language called Ruby and I then joined Verify, maybe about six months ago, so, yes, me and Liz are now on the same programme, and, yes, working in Java on the Verify project, so, yes, it’s good.

Angus Montgomery:
What was your background, what were you doing before you came to GDS and to government?

Rosa Fox:
Worked in quite a small Ruby on Rails agency previously, and then before that various jobs, mostly in small tech companies, and then before that I was studying my degree which was half music half computer science.

Angus Montgomery:
So sort of background in the wider private sector tech industry?

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Liz, how about you?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Broadly the same. I was working for a start-up and before that I was working for a company that did accessible formats. It was a translation company but also did accessible format, so kind of just that, and then before that I was in Canada and I was in university.

Angus Montgomery:
Cool. You’re both obviously involved in the Women’s Network at GDS. Do you have formal roles in it, what do you do for the network?

Rosa Fox:  
I am a co-chair of the Women’s Network. In January we re-launched the network, so me and a colleague called Amanda Diamond, who is now on loan to ACAS, but she was really instrumental in re-launching the network with me. On Amanda’s departure Nicky Zachariou and Laura Flannery have joined me as co-chairs. As a part of that, as a part of the big re-launch, which I can go into more detail later, we created five working groups, and we have people involved in a lot of the different groups, so Liz is involved in events mostly-

Liz Lutgendorff:
And the pay transparency.

Rosa Fox:  
Yes, and pay transparency.  

Angus Montgomery:
Okay, cool, so very active roles both of you.

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Why does the Women’s Network exist and what’s its purpose, what’s it there to do?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’m trying to remember back to when we started it, but I think it was still at Aviation House, were you here when it started or had it already existed?

Rosa Fox:
I read that it started in 2014, so I wasn’t here but you probably were.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think it was generally that GDS had been growing larger. We were becoming more – moving more from being a kind of scrappy start-up to actually having formal things, and how we as employees improve the organisation. I think a lot of us were actually becoming permanent employees rather than contractors as well. I remember we had by the old purple sofas, so like we don’t have meeting rooms as normal, and we just kind of got together and was like, “Do we want to do this thing?” Everyone was like, “Yes, we should do this thing.”

It started as I think as a lot of just email, talking about things that were happening, not really any huge, formal structure that we have now, and then over time it become more formalised. We were like, “What do we want? What kinds of goals do we want to achieve?” And so we did some more events. We weren’t really quite active in changing policy yet, that’s come more with the formal re-launch

Angus Montgomery:
Do you remember, was there a particular spark or a catalyst that led to this happening?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’m not sure. I think there are other people who recognised that there was a gap, that we didn’t have one. I wasn’t really involved, I just remember it happening and being at the group. I think it was just we didn’t have it and we thought there were things that we could improve. We recognised the fact that we had far fewer female developers, a lot of the technical roles were male dominated with only like maybe one or two people who were women in senior levels and things like that. Our SM team was generally quite male heavy I think at that time, it’s gotten better in recent months and years.

Yes, it was mainly a recognition that we didn’t have this and we recognised the imbalance in the workplace at the time. There were several changes quite early on I think, or maybe not early on but under Stephen Foreshew-Cain, our second director, we went to having female representation on every interview panel, which I think the people team have stats that show that that actually increased the amount of, at least people accepting job offers, or giving job offers I think it was, and then as well as making the commitment of not to speak at events that are male dominated, so making sure that women are represented on panel discussions or in the conference in general.

It was quite nice to have that commitment quite early on from our senior management to improve women’s opportunity in these panels as well, so putting women forward to speak at GDS events, rather than having the same people who may have previously spoken anyway and don’t really need the kind of experience or profile raising, so that was quite nice, that was fairly early on in the development of the network I think by engaging with SM team.

Angus Montgomery:
Did you find SM, senior management team, and leadership, did you find that they were quite receptive to this idea of having a women’s network, and was the organisation receptive as well?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes. In general I think GDS is quite acceptant of most networks, if not all networks, so it’s good, but especially under Stephen I think it was – action happened as a result of it which was really nice.

Angus Montgomery:
Rosa, as someone who joined GDS when the Women’s Network had been set up and existed, what do you remember when you first came across it and what you thought of it?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, so I suppose software development, it is very male dominated, and I suppose on a lot of my teams I was often the only woman, so when I heard that there was a Women’s Network I kind of – I felt even though the guys on my team were lovely and fortunately I didn’t experience any harassment or discrimination, but sometimes if you’re struggling or, you know, you kind of want to be around people that you can relate to. I don’t know, it made me feel a bit more comfortable knowing that I had more of a support group there.

When I found out about the Women’s Network, I think it was probably through the inspirational speaker series, so I think that’s how I probably heard that it was in existence and, yes, and then I started going to meetings and things from there.

Angus Montgomery:
Had you ever come across anything similar in other roles, in your jobs before GDS?

Rosa Fox:
Not so much because I worked at quite small companies. Outside of work I co-organise something called Code Bar, which is free weekly coding workshops for people underrepresented in the tech industry. Although in a work capacity I hadn’t I’d done a lot of diversity related community stuff outside of work, so in terms of having a supportive network of people and building that and being involved in that it was quite a big part of my life, but to actually have it in work wasn’t something that I’d had before, as such, but I think that was just because I’d worked at quite small places.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s it like, because I think I probably joined you, yes, about the same time as you and had a similar-ish background, in that I’d worked in smaller organisations in the private sector, and to me one of the really notable things about coming to GDS was the fact that these networks existed but the fact that they were so active, and it was really inescapable that these kinds of networks existed and this diversity existed, and that was really amazing and something that just really stuck with me.

I remember my first few days just seeing things like rainbow flags all over the place and stuff like that. Having come from an environment that I thought was quite inclusive to one that was really, really obviously inclusive was really amazing. Did you find something similar, or how do you feel about-?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, I think it helps a lot to just be very vocal about what is acceptable and what you want and the kind of culture that you want to have. For example, we have lots of posters that we put all over the walls and things just to try and be like, “We’re here, we’re present.” I think the more that you make your values known then the easier it is to call out when something isn’t right. That is still difficult to do even with everything that we have, and that is something that we’re still working on improving, but I think ultimately knowing that we’re creating somewhere where people should feel comfortable to be themselves and feel included is really important, so I think it’s good to shout it from the roof tops and try and make sure everyone is-

Angus Montgomery:
Again, one of the things that struck me is the amount of, like you say shouting through the rooftops, but the amount of energy that you need to have to keep that going as well, like it’s really important to continue to be really, really vocal about this stuff. Liz, is that something that you found, kind of having been involved in the network since the beginning? It’s not that you can't just do this thing and then let it go; you’ve kind of got to keep going with it and got to keep really vocal.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I would say anyone listening in any capacity, I get involved with so many things because I’m generally a person who will just do them, I will get involved and I will be an active person and so this isn’t the only network I’m in, for example, but the problem is that networks live and die by the people who get involved, and having the umbrella is great but you still need the individuals to do the planning, do the organisation.

I think there’s a difference between joining and thing and you’re like, “There’s this thing, and that’s wonderful and I’ll participate and go to the things,” but it takes an extra level of personal courage and political capital to be, “I’m also going to be the annoying person who raises the thing that has upset the group,” and being that front person to say, “This wasn’t appropriate,” or putting on a controversial talk if we want to do that, or something like that.

And again, I think when it ebbs and flows is when people have left and were doing that role and there’s a vacuum to replace it, or you’re just really busy, work in GDS ebbs and flows as well, and so if you feel you have the time and energy and you’re not afraid of doing that, like get involved, we need you, we always need you. Don’t feel like you’re going to step on people’s toes. Just say, “I’d really like to help.” What would you like me to do? This is what I’m interested in.” They will love you for it.

No one will think you’re butting in or being mean or trying to take over, it’s we just need the help. We’re all working every day, we have holidays, we have good days and bad days and so anyone who can pick up the slack is completely 100% absolutely welcome to get involved.

Rosa Fox:
It does take courage. Some of the issues that we deal with are – they can be emotionally draining, but we just do what we can to support each other. You have to think back to the suffragettes, deeds not words. As a community they got together and they fought for change and they got it, so just keep going.

Angus Montgomery:
You mentioned that it’s challenging, and obviously it takes a lot of energy, but you’re seeing change because you are – things are changing because the network exists and that must be hugely rewarding, do you get that feeling as well and is that what keeps you going in a sense?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes, I definitely think from being here seven years ago that GDS in different ways has gotten better and worse. Worse in the sense like it’s not as small as it was so you don’t feel involved in every decision, sometimes you don’t know where things come from, sometimes you don’t know who these people are because they’re on a different floor and you’ve never met them, but in others ways it’s become much better.

I think the hiring practices have gotten a lot more slicker. We definitely have more women involved in the workplace, and in senior positions. We have now the time to do the network things. I think at the very beginning it was just like, “Let’s get stuff over the line, oh my God,” so busy, so stressful, and so it’s mellowed in the sense that we have the time, people aren’t expected to be heroes and just constantly deliver and deliver and deliver.

So in that way I think it’s a much better workplace, especially for people who want to be involved in something but have kids, or have caring commitments, or are reservists, or whatever, that you don’t feel like you’re letting the team down if you can't spend 100% time delivering the thing, you can take that time out to help make the workplace better. I think on aggregate it has become better.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, and I would say it is so rewarding. For example, one of the things that we’ve done is a break into public speaking workshop, and so when people sign up… So originally it was for the Women’s Network, now it’s for anyone underrepresented in tech, and when people register they fill out a form and they talk about what holds you back from public speaking, what are your worries, what are your fears. It’s really sad to see the responses and it seems like, “I’m worried I don’t have anything interesting to say. I’m scared that I will completely freeze when I get on stage.” All the worries that people have about public speaking, but when people turn up, the women are so talented, they’ve got so many amazing stories.

I think what kind of world do we live in where these people have been told that they don’t have anything to say, so to see people go from…And it’s not their ability that’s the problem, it’s the lack of confidence, and to see people go from these fears to then to see them present at the end and go on to speak at conferences and do all these things, and I think having underrepresented people out there speaking, having a voice, is so important and it’s so inspirational to others as well. Things like that I find really, yes, really inspiring.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I was just thinking about GDS I think, and it’s still present, it was present in the beginning and it’s still present now, is that everyone wants to see the best of people and so, again, the getting involved in public speaking, you can go there knowing that they’re going to be supportive and no one’s going to laugh or anything. They’re there because they genuinely have either struggled themselves, they want to help people, and that’s the same ethos across GDS, that everyone wants the best out of everyone, and they want to help them get there.

Coming to work for GDS must be lovely for some people because I know coming from another job that you don’t have that, right, it’s kind of like it’s a terrible workplace, not everyone hates each other but there are cliques and stuff like that, and it’s genuinely amazing to have such support here and I think, I don’t if it’s unique, I don’t know if other teams across civil service experience this, but when people leave the thing that is common to everyone leaving is like, “I don’t know why I’m leaving, this is truly amazing and I’ve never worked with nicer people in my life. I’ve learned so much from everyone.” I think even if we change, in whatever ways we change as an organisation, as long as that stays true I think GDS will always be an amazing place to work.

Angus Montgomery:
In your time in the Women’s Network, what do you think is the most rewarding or valuable thing that the network has done, or what’s the thing that you think, “So pleased that we did that?”

Rosa Fox:
There are literally so many things. I’d say as an overall general thing, and then I can go into a few more examples but, yes I think so when I talk about all the different working groups that we’ve got, so obviously the chairs of the network are just a few people, we’ve only got so much time, so the network basically relies upon the work of so many people coming together and making change. I think that in itself is something, but, yes, we have inspirational speakers that come in.

I suppose the public speaking workshops, so training and mentoring, there’s a training and mentoring group, they had a launch of a mentoring, I want to say ‘service’, but that’s not the word, mentoring scheme here at GDS, so that’s basically pairing women with mentors to help them with questions to do with career progression and advancing their careers. Yes, that’s something exciting that’s happened.

I remember the previous network did something called ‘reverse mentoring’. When I started GDS, I think it was two months after I joined I did that, and I was reverse mentoring Alex Holmes who was the COO at the time. That was really interesting because I think – so at the time when I thought of a COO, I think of this superhuman, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, or someone like that, so to actually be able to regularly talk to the COO of the company you work at is really inspiring because you find out from them how they got to that point. Also, it makes you realise that maybe it’s not completely unattainable, which is really positive. Yes, things like that.

What else have we had? Things like having diverse interview panels is another thing. This is quite an interesting one, so the previous people that were in charge of the Women’s Network managed to get lots of the fixed term appointment contracts to be made permanent, because obviously if you’re going on maternity leave and your contract runs out you don’t have that job security. I think, yes, pushing things forward like that has been really good.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the things related to that, and it’s a thing that obviously we talk a lot about at GDS, but there are lots of statistics about how underrepresented women are in the tech industry, so I think there’s a PWC report that I’ve seen quite a lot that says something like, “Only 15% of people working in STEM,” so science, technology, engineering and maths, “In the UK are female,” and only 5% of people in leadership positions identify as women as well. It’s an obvious question but why, why is that, and is the tech industry particularly bad, and what are the things that make it so?

Rosa Fox:
I think it stems from a young age. Apparently women were the first computer programmers after the war. We were there, well, I say coding, writing the code out by hand and making punch cards and things like that but I think the 1980s was probably when the male domination crept in and it became more lucrative to be a programmer.

It became I suppose the kind of sci-fi hacker image started. I suppose, I don’t know, women must have just got slowly pushed out. I mean, I don’t think the numbers have improved much since the eighties, which is such a shame. I think a lot of it is how we’re conditioned from a young age. Girls, partly I think it’s girls are not really taught to take risks and things in the way that boys are, you know, “Boys will be boys, girls shouldn’t play in the mud,” that kind of thing. With programming, it does take a lot of grit and determination at first. You have to get comfortable with making mistakes because you break things all the time, things aren’t going to work, you have to sit there for hours trying to get… Like you’ve missed out a bracket and then you realise and then your code works. Things like that. I think maybe that’s part of it. Another thing is maybe it’s got this kind of geeky image, maybe it’s not considered cool to programme computers, and if you’re a girl and you’re at school maybe you’re more interested in trying to fit in with your friends. Maybe it does stem from that age.

I think also girls are just told that they can't do it. I’ve heard of – I knew someone who was studying computing A level quite a long time ago now at school, and they basically said, well, her tutor just constantly put her down. They had an anonymous test score announcement and someone had scored really highly, and they were like, “Put up your hand, who do you think this was?” It was her, so she was constantly put down but then she would get good grades. I think, yes, if you’re told that you’re not going to be good at something and then the opportunities aren’t there then… Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, and I don’t think this is true just of the tech industry but I know for a fact this is true of industries beyond that, but the level of representation of women the higher up you go, the more senior you get, becomes less and less, and that figure about only 5% of people in leadership roles identify as women. Why is that an issue? On top of this structural discrimination, I suppose, against women coming into the tech industry you’ve then got this career progression issue. Why does that happen?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes. It’s not an individual company thing, it’s society. In organisations a lot of the tech stuff is going to be small companies, probably not with great HR policies, probably not with leave or flexible working is not a thing that exists, and so if you’re a carer, mother, if you have any of these responsibilities which disproportionately fall towards women that’s not going to be really attractive, and that’s also where you can also get lots of experience and actually go from being a small start-up to scaling up quite quickly and being in those senior roles, so if you don’t want to do that then where do you go?

Some place within GDS you have those structures and places that allow you to rise but GDS is civil service, not a lot of people know that there are tech opportunities in the civil service, still, even though there in GDS, there are loads of digital teams within many government departments who will offer you that support, and so until that changes across a lot of the tech sector I don’t know if it will improve.

The same with being in a senior role, if you’re not seen as constantly going for that then you’re not going to rise either, and putting yourself out there. If you want to go on leave to have a child or something then that’s going to hold you back. There is enough research that says that’s a big problem.

I think as well, you have to be quite vocal, you need to have, maybe not even vocal but just have that aim and relentlessly pursue it. I don’t think a lot of people are raised like that, like Rosa said. I was not raised like that. My mum was born in the Netherlands and she did a mathematics degree in the 1960s, or something, and she only could become a teacher, that was her only option at that time and so when I was raised my mum was like, “You can do whatever you want.” I changed my mind every five minutes. She was like, “Doesn’t matter, just work for it.” Typical kind of very Dutch approach to things. “Work for it and you do it.”

So I grew up with a very different perception of I can literally do everything. Which has made me probably more mouthy than I should be, but at the same time when I’m in the workforce I know that I am on average probably a lot more argumentative than most of my female colleagues, but on par with my male colleagues because I don’t really see that difference, because that’s how I was raised. Unless you’re getting that support probably from a young age you’re not going to be like that.

Even growing up through high school and university I was always like, “I’m going to do public speaking. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” My parents were all supportive; they never said I couldn’t do anything. You need a lot of support from a lot of different angles to be able to get to that position and to fight for that position. Probably disproportionate to the people who are male and getting those positions because it’s kind of expected.

Rosa Fox:
I was going to say, yes, that’s so true. Girls have for years outperformed boys in every subject in school. It’s not down to the ability of women, women are just as intelligent. I want to say if not more, but… No, it’s about equality. We’re just as intelligent as each other and it’s just awful that women are treated as second class citizens when it’s just the structures have just been so skewed for so long and it just needs to change.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve talked a lot obviously about the Women’s Network and about, I suppose, as a consequence of that what women are doing to help each other in the workplace, and you as women are doing to help other women, but what can men do to help? Well, as a starter, the Women’s Network is open to everyone, you don’t have to identify as a woman to be a member, that’s correct isn’t it?

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Presumably still the majority of members are women. Do you have a lot of members who don’t identify as women?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, I’d say the majority are women. It’s International Men’s Day in a couple of weeks so we’re having a male allies event, and we’re having someone, an Oxford professor called Taha Yasseri and he’s going to be doing a talk about data science in the everyday sexism project. Then we’re going to have two GDS workers, so Kieran Housden and Matt Gregory and they are going to be talking about shared parental leave. Then we’re going to be talking about what it is to be a good male ally, kind of like a group discussion. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more people of any gender to join the network as a result of that as well. Hopefully that will be improving, but at the moment, yes, it is mostly women.

I’d say to be a good ally, firstly I think it’s recognising your biases. I think calling out bad behaviour and setting a good example. Also I think if a woman tells you that they think something is sexist or they think that something is harassment then it probably is. I find it stressful when people try and undermine someone’s opinion on something like that. I think if someone tells you this is sexist it probably is, stop doing it kind of thing.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think on a really individual level, especially in the workplace somewhere like GDS or the civil service, or anywhere where you have a performance review at the end of the year or mid year, whatever, is to always… If a woman asks you for feedback try to give it to them. Like if you can only give one piece of feedback and one’s a guy and one’s a woman, try to give the feedback to the woman because it’s going to be harder for them to get good quality reviews.

The other things is always carefully think about what you’re saying in these things, because you get a lot of flaky, qualitative behaviour sort of thing. So like women will be more strident or they will be more argumentative, but men never get those descriptions in reviews and things like that, and so if you’re on the receiving end of that, like if you’re a manager and you are getting that feedback from someone, not even just a woman but anyone who is an underrepresented minority, to really drill down into it, like what exactly was the thing.

You get a lot of second hand, “I didn’t really like the way they constructed that email.” It’s a perfectly innocuous email, they’ve just kind of that unconscious bias has crept in. So every time there is some sort of unqualified or vague piece of feedback that is especially about behaviour, drill down into it, examine it, see if there is some bias at play.

Women and underrepresented groups always get hit with that stuff, whereas a lot of men don’t. It can really hold people back. These sorts of things really affect women quite strongly because it’s like, “I thought I was being a good team member, communicating, getting all my stakeholders involved,” all these sorts of things. It just throws people for a loop.

This is more from all my union experience but it’s so tough to get good, practical, delivery focused reviews. It’s like, “Yes, they delivered this thing, it was really well done,” all that sort of stuff, so give good, evidenced feedback for people. That will help them career wise more so than probably anything else that you could do for them. Or if they need help with something be very thorough, help them through the problem, build their confidence while you’re solving that problem, but just be there, be supportive, be un-judgemental and just help them in small ways to progress.

Angus Montgomery:
Just as a final question, the Women’s Network has been around for several years now and obviously as we’ve spoken about has done a lot of things, how would GDS be different if the Women’s Network didn’t exist?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think we’d have less women in the workplace.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, definitely, less women. I think the culture would probably be not very nice really.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think it would be all right but it wouldn’t be as thoughtful as it is. I think over the years it’s become far more thoughtful. Yes, definitely less women! (Laughter)

Rosa Fox:
Yes, maybe it would be more hostile. Yes, probably just wouldn’t be such a nice place to be day to day.

Angus Montgomery:
So real tangible, not only a nicer place but more women in the workplace literally because of the network?

Rosa Fox:
Definitely. I think the work we’ve produced as working for the government, our products have to work for everyone, so if we’ve got more of a range of inputs and we have better products that we produce, so…

Liz Lutgendorff:
I have no idea why the people who took shared parental leave took it because they knew of it, but I know the civil service in general has been the largest uptake of people using shared parental leave. So for those who don’t know it means that if you meet certain qualifications you can basically split the time off between your partners. So you might take four months, the mother might take four months, the mother or the other father might take four months, whatever, however you break it down.

I think because it’s so un-judgemental in terms of where we work and that you won't be disappointing your team if you leave for four months to spend that quality time with your child that more men will take it here. I know so many men who have taken shared parental leave with GDS and it’s just great, you get to have that time. I’m not a parent, I don’t know what it’s like but I imagine it must be nice not to have two weeks and have to go back and have a newborn in your house. To be able to take that time and become a parent must be really nice.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, the countries where there is a greater amount of maternity and paternity leave, they have better gender equality so, yes, I think it’s so important, and if more importance, and understanding the importance of care giving, I think we’re so taught career, career, career, but actually if we didn’t have care giving then people can't have careers, so I think if more appreciation was given towards that as well, which I think it is here at GDS more so than a lot of other places, then I think that’s good. If people are happy outside of work they’re going to do better work when they’re at work. Hopefully.

Angus Montgomery:
Just to finish off, for anyone who’s listening to this, how can they get involved with and join the Women’s Network?

Rosa Fox:
Please join. Yes, we have a Google group, so usually a lot of the communications are done through that so it’s probably best to join that. Otherwise, just message me or Nicky or Laura and, yes, there are plenty of different groups that you could be involved in. It’s like if anyone’s got an idea that they want to make happen then we’re open to try and make it happen.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, well I hope lots of people do. Yes, Liz and Rosa, thank you very much for joining me.

Rosa Fox:
Thank you.

Liz Lutgendorff:
Thanks.

Angus Montgomery:
Thank you very much for joining us for that episode of the GDS podcast, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you want to listen to any more podcasts please go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to it, we’ve got lots more coming up. The next episode which we will be releasing in December will be a review of the year at the Government Digital Service, so please subscribe and listen to that one, and I hope you enjoy what we’ve done and what we’ll do in the future. Thank you very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #2 An interview with Terence Eden

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #2 An interview with Terence Eden

November 7, 2018

In this episode, we talk to Terence Eden, Open Standards Lead at the Government Digital Service. We discuss his job, a digitally-equipped civil service and emerging technology in government.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Sarah Stewart:

Hello. Welcome to the second GDS podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart, Senior Writer at the Government Digital Service. Today I’ll be joined in conversational paradise with Terence Eden. Terence is known variously as a tech enthusiast, as a digital troublemaker, as the man who hacked his own vacuum cleaner to play the ‘Star Wars’ theme tune, but in a professional capacity he is the Open Standards Lead at the Government Digital Service. Terence, welcome.

Terence Eden: 

Thank you very much for having me.

Sarah Stewart: 

So how do you explain what you do?

Terence Eden: 

What I tend to say, in a very reduced vocabulary, is, “We have computers. Government has computers, and those computers need to talk to each other, but sometimes those computers don’t speak the same language.” It’s my job to say, “Hey, can we agree on a common language here?” Then, when we can, those computers speak to each other.

It’s, kind of, as simple as that. If we publish a document and it’s in a format that you don’t understand, that’s a barrier to entry for you. You can’t get access to the data or the information you need. If we publish it in such a way that it’s only available on one manufacturer’s type of smartphone, that’s a barrier. We can’t do that, so it’s my job to say, “No, let’s make it available to everyone, in a common language.”

I’ve got a big sticker on my laptop which says, ‘Make things open. It makes things better.’ That applies to a whole variety of things, and there are people here working on open data, and open source, and open government, but my part of the mission is to say that, when government produces documents or data, everyone should be able to read them.

It’s unacceptable that we say, “Okay, if you want to interact with government, you need to pay this company this money, for this software, which only works on that platform.” That’s completely antithetical to everything we’re trying to do, so my mission – our team’s mission – is to go around government, saying, “There’s a better way of doing things, there’s a more open way of doing things, and we can help you with that.” 

Sarah Stewart:

That sounds completely straightforward.

Terence Eden:

You’d think, wouldn’t you? Most of the time it is. When you tell people and you say, “If you publish it like this, then only people with that computer can read it,” it’s like a light goes off.

Sarah Stewart: 

Do you go out to departments proactively, or do they come to you?

Terence Eden:

It’s both. I spent last week talking to the DWP and the Government Statistical Service, and I’m speaking, I think, this week to a couple of different departments and ministries. We go out, we chat to them, but quite often they come to us and say, “Hey, users have complained about this,” or, “Hang on. We think we need to do something better. What should we do?” and we offer just a wide range of advice.

Sarah Stewart:

Government is huge and technology changes all the time so how do you make sure you are progressing in the right direction, that you’re achieving what needs to be achieved, and that your work is ‘done’, I mean is it even possible to say your work is ‘done’?

Terence Eden:

Wow… It’s a slight Sisyphean task, I think, because there’s always going to be a new department coming online which doesn’t get it, or someone who’s come in, and a bit of work which only gets published every five years, and the process is never updated. It’s a rolling task.

We monitor everything the government publishes. My team, when we see a department which only publishes something in a proprietary format, we drop them an email and say, “Hey, look, here are the rules. This is what you need to do. Can you fix it?” Most of the time they do, and we’ve seen… We’ve published some statistics. We’re seeing a steady rise in the number of open-format documents which are being published.

That’s great, so we’re on our way with the mission. You can’t expect everyone to keep on top of every change in technology and the best practice all the time, so there is always going to be a need for bits of GDS to go out and say, “You know what? This is best practice. This is the right way to do it, and we can help you get there and make things more open.”

So… we need to do, I think, in GDS and across government, a better job of understanding what our users want – what they need, I should say – and also explaining that user need back to the rest of government.

Sarah Stewart:

But what’s your focus at the moment?

Terence Eden:

We have a problem with PDFs. I don’t think that’s any surprise. I’ve published the stats, but there are some critical government forms which are being downloaded millions of times per year, which could be better served being online forms. When someone has to download, print out a form, fill it in by hand and then post it back, for someone else to open it up, scan it, or type it in, we-

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s the worst.

Terence Eden:

It’s the worst. It’s rubbish. It’s a rubbish user experience. It’s expensive and it’s not very efficient. It means you’re waiting weeks to get an answer, whereas if you can just go on your phone and type in your name, address, and all the other bits that they want, and hit ‘go’ and then get either an instant or a rapid decision, that just transforms the relationship between the citizen and the state, as we say.

So, a large part of the next six months is going to be finding those… It’s not low-hanging fruit, but it’s just those big, horrible things which just no-one has got round to tackling yet. Some of them, there are good reasons and there are whole business processes behind, but we need to be pushing and saying, “Look, in 2018 this isn’t good enough. This isn’t the way that we can behave anymore.”

A lot of what I do is going round to departments, and doing presentations, and talking to people individually and in groups. I see that continuing. We also work a lot with SDOs: standard development organisations. I’m on a committee for the British Standards Institute, and I work with World Wide Web Consortium, and so we’re making sure that the government’s view is represented.

We don’t ever want to produce a standard which is a government standard, and it’s the government’s own standard. It’s the only one, and we’re the only people who use it, because no-one wants to deal with that. We want to have… We want to be using internationally accepted standards. If you’re an SME, if you’re a small-medium business and you want to pitch for some work for government, you don’t need to go and buy a huge, expensive standard, or you don’t need to do a piece of work just for us. Your work can be applicable everywhere.

That said, it’s important for us to be on these standards development organisations so we can say, “Actually, our user needs are going to be slightly different from a FTSE 100 company, or from a charity, or from someone else.” We can just shape those standards so that they’re slightly more applicable for us.

Sarah Stewart:

Someone listening might ask: why can’t government use, say, something like Google Forms instead of a PDF? Why can’t government just do this?

Terence Eden:

In some ways, they can. With that particular example, we need to understand people’s concerns about privacy. If we were using a third-party form supplier, for example, do you want, if you’re filling in a form which says how many kids you’ve got, how many have died, and your health issues and all that, do you want that going to a third party to be processed? Some people will be comfortable with it. Some people will, rightly, be uncomfortable with it. We need to make sure that any solution that we pick actually addresses users’ very real concerns.

There are several pieces of work around government trying to get forms right. Part of the problem is that each department has their own set of users, with their own set of user needs. If you are a, I don’t know… If you’re a farmer applying for a farm payment, you have very different needs to if you are a single mother applying for child benefit, to if you are a professional accountant trying to submit something to HMRC.

So, just saying, “We’re going to have one standardised way of sending data to the government” might actually not work. We have to realise that users all have different needs. It’s tricky, and there are ways that we are helping with it, but I think that’s going to be a piece of work which is going to continue rumbling on, just because some of these processes are very old-fashioned, and they still rely on things being faxed across and being handwritten.

Sarah Stewart:

Faxed? That can’t be right. Actually, no, I can believe it

Terence Eden:

Lots of stuff just goes through via fax because, if you’ve got a computer system built in one department, and a computer system built by someone else in another department, and they don’t speak the same language, actually the easiest way to do something is to send a photo of that document across. That’s easiest and quickest. Fax is relatively quick, but it comes with all of this baggage and it doesn’t always work right. We see that fax machines are vulnerable to computer viruses and stuff like this.

Sarah Stewart:

And the noise.

Terence Eden:  

And the noise, but sometimes we have these little stopgaps, which are good enough for the time, but they never get replaced. Part of the work that we’ve done with the Open Standards Board is to make sure that all emergency services use a standard called ‘MAIT’ – Multi Agency Incident Transfer – which basically means you don’t need a police department to fax across details to an ambulance or to a coastguard. Their computers, even if they’re made by different people and run different operating systems and programs, they all speak to a common standard.

So trying to find where those little bugs in the process are is part of our job. If people want to help out, if they know where problems are, if they come across to GitHub, we’re on ‘github.com/alphagov/open-standards’. They can raise an issue there and say, “Hey, there really ought to be an open standard for,” dot, dot, dot, or, “Look, this process really doesn’t make sense. There’s this open standard which would save us a lot of time and money. Can we adopt it?”

It’s as simple as raising a GitHub issue with us. We do most of the hard work to find out whether it’s suitable, and we take it through a slightly convoluted process, but it keeps us legally in the clear. Yes, then we can, hopefully, mandate that across government and start the work on getting people to adopt it.

Some of the stuff we do is small. Saying that text should be encoded using Unicode UTF-8, that just basically means that, when someone sends you a document with an apostrophe in it, it doesn’t turn into one of those weird… We call it ‘Mojibake’, where there are just weird symbols in place of-

Sarah Stewart:

The squares.

Terence Eden:

Yes, the weird squares. That is a really boring, low-level standard, but it just makes everything easy, all the way up to something like MAIT or International Aid Transparency Initiative, which allows you to see where all the foreign aid that we spend, and all the grants that we make, goes. That’s hugely important for understanding, if you’re a taxpayer, where your money is going, but, if you’re in the charity sector or the aid sector, understanding how government is using funds to improve lives.

We don’t want information to be locked away in filing cupboards. We don’t want it so that, if you request some information, you have to send an FOI and then you get a scan of a fax posted off to you. That’s rubbish. We want this information front and centre so that, if people want to use it, it’s there, and that it works absolutely everywhere.

It doesn’t matter which phone you’ve got, which computer you’ve got, you should be able to access all of the information that you’re entitled to, with no intermediaries, no having to pay for extra software. It should just be there. If we make things open, then we make things better.

Sarah Stewart:

Another area of focus for you is emerging technology - innovation is a hot topic in government at the moment with the publication of the tech innovation in government survey, the GovTech catalyst fund, and the development of an innovation strategy. How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at new fashionable tech because it’s new and fashionable?

Terence Eden:

The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed yet.” That’s not really the case. The future isn’t here. We’ve got glimpses that, if we can build this huge dataset, then we will be able to artificial intelligence the blockchain into the cloud and magic will happen. You’re right: people just go a little starry-eyed over this.

What we need in government is people who understand technology at a deep and fundamental level, not people who see what a slick sales team is selling, not people who read a report in a newspaper and go, “We could do that.” You need a fundamental understanding.

Sarah Stewart:

Do you really think it’s possible that every Civil Servant can understand the fundamentals of emerging technology and digital practice?

Terence Eden: 

Yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Because it can seem quite frightening.

Terence Eden: 

Yes, absolutely. We wouldn’t accept a civil servant who couldn’t read or write. We can be as inclusive as we like, but we need to set minimum standards for being able to engage with the work that we do. Similarly, we wouldn’t accept a civil servant who couldn’t type or use a computer in a basic way.

I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about digital natives. What a digital native is: someone whose parents were rich enough to buy them a computer when they were a kid. That’s great, but not everyone is that lucky, but what we can do is say, “We’re not going to just train you in how to fill in a spreadsheet. We’re going to teach you to think about how you would build a formula in a spreadsheet, how to build an algorithm,” and you can start building up on that.

We have to be committed to lifelong learning in the civil service. It’s not good enough to say, “Okay, this is your job. You’re going to do it for the next 25 to 40 years, and there will be no change in it whatsoever.” That’s unrealistic. I think as part of that – and it’s not going to happen overnight – we need to make sure that when someone comes in and says, “We’re going to use an algorithm,” that everyone in the room not only understands that but is able to critique it, and potentially be able to write it, as well.

I think that’s what the ‘Emerging Technology Development Programme’ is about, is making sure that civil servants can code, making sure that they understand how they would build an AI system, understand what the ethics are, learn about what the reasons for and against using a bit of technology like distributed ledgers are, because otherwise we end up with people just buying stuff which isn’t suitable.

We have a slight problem in that we don’t want to tie ourselves to tech which is going to go out of date quickly. It would have been… You can imagine a GDS in the past saying, “Let’s put all of government onto Teletext.” That would be great, but that has a limited shelf life.

We’ve got a statement which says that government shouldn’t build apps, because they’re really expensive to use, and they don’t work for everyone. Okay, maybe there are some limited circumstances where we can use them, but by and large we should be providing on neutral technology platforms, like the web. We need to understand exactly what the limitations are when we say, “Bitcoin, blockchain, the cloud, AI,” anything like that.

So, there are new technologies, and we do adopt them. We can be slow to adopt them, and part of that is: are we chasing fashion, or are we chasing utility? It’s very easy to confuse the two. We wouldn’t, I think, go for transmitting government documents by Snapchat, for example. How cool would that be?

Sarah Stewart:

The filters, yes.

Terence Eden:

Brilliant, but what’s the user need for it? Is it just we want to do something that looks cool? That’s not a user need.

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. The amount of times I hear people talking about headsets, as though everybody in the country is going to have a VR headset.

Terence Eden:

Yes, we’re all going to be jacked into the cyber matrix, (Laughter) watching VR stuff. Yes, and maybe VR will take off; maybe we will… In a year’s time, I’ll be the head of VR for GDS. How cool a job title would that be?

Sarah Stewart:

Well, remember me, or look for me in the matrix.

Terence Eden:

Yes, but is there a user need for it? For some parts of government, you might say, if you’re doing planning decisions, for example, “Would it be good to strap on a VR headset and take a look around this 3D representation of the town after the remodelling or after the bypass has been built?” whatever it is. Okay, yes, you could make an argument for that. Do people want to interact with government in something like ‘Second Life’, or ‘Minecraft’, or ‘Fortnite’, (Laughter) or any of these things which are just coming out? Maybe.

Sarah Stewart: 

I’d love to see the customisable characters.

Terence Eden:

Yes, brilliant. We’ve got to be ever so slightly careful that this cool, shiny tech is going to last, because, if we make an investment in it, that’s other people’s money that we’re spending. When I was in the private sector, it’s shareholders’ money that you’re spending. It’s still someone else’s money that you’re spending, and you have to have a really good business case.

It’s alright for us to experiment. Some people in Department for Transport are brilliant at this. Take an idea, run it for a few weeks, and don’t spend more than a few thousand pounds on it, and a few people’s time. Can it work? Does it work? If it doesn’t work, brilliant, we’ve saved money by saying, “Look, doing it this way is probably not going to work for us.” What we don’t want to do is go full in and say, “We’re going to make 3D ‘Angry Birds’ avatars of all civil servants, and then you can play them on your Oculus Rift, or something like that. It’s nonsense.

Sarah Stewart:

Is sandpit testing something that happens across government, it happens loads in the financial industry, but in government does that exist?

Terence Eden:

In part it does. One of the big problems that I see is people are afraid of failure. They shouldn’t be. If we were to say, “We are…” It’s very easy to run a procurement exercise and say, “We’re going to choose the best,” but sometimes what’s the necessary thing to do is, “We are going to ask three or four people to build something, to build a prototype in a few weeks, and we expect two of them to fail.” When you say that and you say, “Hang on, we’re going to spend money and we know that it’s going to fail?” Yes, but we don’t know which one is going to fail. We need to try four or five different approaches. Rather than wait until we’ve spent £1m and there’s a public enquiry on it, let’s get the failure out of the way as soon as possible.

That’s really scary for people of all levels in the civil service, but it’s absolutely necessary. We need to experiment. We need to take risks – small, self-contained risks where, if it fails, okay, so we’ve spent a bit of money, but not an extortionate amount. We’ve spent a bit of time, but only a few weeks, and what we’ve come up with is: “You know what? Doing it that way, it just won’t work. We’ve experimented, we’ve failed, but that’s going to save us more money in the long term.” It’s a mind-set change, and it’s psychologically difficult to turn to your manager and say, “I want to fail at something, please,” but it’s absolutely necessary.

Sarah Stewart:

So somewhat related to that is learning and development. I know that you were involved in the pilot ‘Emerging Technology Development Programme’, which was run through the GDS Academy, could you tell more a bit more about that?

Terence Eden:

So, I’ve already gone on a course to learn ‘R’, which is statistical language. My statistics skills weren’t great, if I’m honest, so being able to learn how to use a really powerful tool like that, and start doing some machine learning on the data that we’re getting in, has been incredibly useful for my job, but I’m also going around talking to other civil servants about things like facial recognition and digital ethics.

It’s really easy for us to see, “Wow, we can do something like face recognition. How cool would that be for our department?” but we also need to think about, “What are the problems? What are the dangers? What are the moral, legal, and ethical considerations that we have to do?”

We know, for example, that, with a cheap webcam and some open-source code, you can do crude gender recognition, so you can say that “This face looks 90% male,” or, “80% female.” That might be useful in some circumstances, but it’s also particularly scary, and difficult, and troubling if you get it wrong, or if someone doesn’t want their born gender revealed, or anything like that.

Where we see bright, shiny, new technology, “We could do something really cool with this,” we also need to temper it and say, “Well, what are the downsides? What are the moral limits to what we can do with this tech?”

Sarah Stewart:

You mention moral limits, and I would like to talk to you a little more about government and ethics, especially as it relates to emerging technology - what is our responsibility?

Terence Eden:

I’m not sure – I’m not a politician, obviously – I’m not sure whether it’s our place to say for the private sector, or for individuals, or for open-source projects what to do, but we absolutely have a duty to talk to civil servants about what they are responsible for.

We have a civil service code, and it says that all of us have to act impartially, and a whole bunch of other things, but it doesn’t… It talks about acting in an ethical fashion, but it doesn’t necessarily address the code that we create. If you’re working in a big department, and you’ve got a big project and we’re going to create some cool machine-learning thing to look at data, then you should be doing an ethical review on that. The Department for – what are they called, ‘Data and Ethics’?

Sarah Stewart:

Oh we have the Centre for Data Ethics.

Terence Eden:

Centre for Data Ethics, yes. If you’ve got a big project that you’re working on, and you’re doing some big data, and you’re trying to learn something from there, then talking to the Centre for Data Ethics is a good thing. You should absolutely be doing it, but, if you’ve just got your laptop one lunchtime, and you’ve downloaded some open-source code from GitHub, and you’re running a machine-learning algorithm on a huge dataset, you can do that by yourself, with no oversight. Should you? What are the ethical considerations that you, as an individual, have to consider?

Sarah Stewart:

Okay, cast your mind back to July. You were at the National Cyber Security Centre. I was there, too. I saw you with a robot. What was all that about?

Terence Eden:

The robots are coming for us. There’s no doubt about that, (Laughter) but what we have to understand is, when we say, “The robots are coming for our jobs,” what jobs do we mean? What are the limits of robotics? What can they do? What can’t they do? We built a really simple Lego robot which solves a Rubik’s Cube. You can go online. The instructions are there. The source code is there. It took my wife and I an afternoon to build it, and this solves a Rubik’s Cube faster than nearly everyone in the building. There’s one person in this building who can beat it, so his job is safe. (Laughter)

Okay, so government doesn’t sort Rubik’s Cubes, generally. That’s not our job, but we do lots of repetitive work with data which is just rote work. Can we train a robot to do that? How do we deal with edge cases? What are the limits when we start doing robotic process automation? That’s what people need to start thinking about now, is what value do they bring to a job which couldn’t be encoded in an algorithm? I think that’s a challenge for all of us.

Sarah Stewart:

Just to confirm, the robots are or aren’t coming for our jobs, specifically writers?

Terence Eden:

Yes. Do you have a spell check on your PC?

Sarah Stewart:

I do.

Terence Eden:

There we go. There is a piece of AI which is doing your job. We don’t think of that as AI, but there’s some really sophisticated technology going in to say, ‘Not only have you misspelt that word, because it doesn’t match the dictionary, but, looking at the context, you probably mean this word.’

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. That’s already happened. Do you remember the Microsoft paperclip? It looks like you’re writing a letter.

Terence Eden:

Yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Actually, I was having a conversation with someone a couple of months ago about speechwriting and how, if you have all of the elements of speechwriting and a computer program, so kind of the rule of three, repetition, a story that includes a beginning, a middle and an end, you actually don’t really need a human to do that.

Terence Eden:  

Absolutely.

Sarah Stewart:

Although I probably shouldn’t say that, because I need my job.

Terence Eden:

I think what we’ll see more is robotic enhancement, if you like, so, as you say, writing a speech, maybe having Clippy coming in and saying, ‘You’re writing a speech. Do you need help with that?” isn’t-

Sarah Stewart:

Clippy, yes.

Terence Eden:

Maybe that’s not what you want, but having something which will gently guide you down the right path, making sure that your spelling and grammar is correct, that the structure is correct, that will all be great. Similarly, when you receive a document and your email program has already scanned it and gone, ‘Well, that’s the address, and this is the person who sent it,’ and things like that, you’re just being augmented a bit by a robot, by a bit of artificial intelligence.

That’s slowly creeping in. I think lots of email programs now offer buttons at the bottom where you can just read the email and it says, ‘You can either reply, “Yes, that’s great,” or, “No, I need more time to think about it.”’ Realistically, that’s what you want to say, quite a lot of the time.

So… Robots are coming for us all now.

Sarah Stewart:

As long as they don’t come for us in… I’ve seen, like, five films in my entire life, and there’s… Is it ‘I, Robot’, with Will Smith? At first the robots are friendly, and then in the second half I think the robots try to kill… This is like when I try to explain ‘Star Wars’ to you, and you actually know...

Terence Eden:

We need a podcast of you explaining ‘Star Wars’, because it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s really complex. Let’s talk about the past - you used to sell ringtones - what made you want to work here?

Terence Eden:

Working in the private sector is great, and working in the public sector is also great. I think people get really hung up about there being a difference, and there isn’t. I’ve worked for some of the biggest companies in the UK, and they have all the same problems that a large government department has. I’ve worked for tiny start-ups, and they can be just as agile as GDS is. There are positives and negatives.

I’d spent a long time doing private sector stuff, and it was great fun, but I saw the work that GDS was doing and thought, “I want to be part of that. I want to be pushing the conversation forward. I want to make sure that the government, the civil service in the country where I live, is doing the right thing.”

It’s really easy being on the outside, snarking, and I think we’ve all done it. (Laughter) It’s like, even if you’re just snarking about the train company or whoever it is, it’s really easy just to go, “They’re all useless,” nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, but it’s harder to come in and say, “Right, I’m going to try and push from the inside.” I don’t think I’m going to succeed at everything that I want, and I’m not coming in with the attitude that I’m going to revolutionise government. I think it would be dangerous if any one civil servant could do that. (Laughter)

Sarah Stewart:

I did try.

Terence Eden:

Did you? But I’ve come in with the attitude that there is a task here that I believe in that I think is important for this country and internationally. If we can lead the way, then we can help influence other people in other countries to do the right thing. That’s fantastic.

I’ve met with government representatives from around Europe, from around the world, and they’ve been consistently impressed with what GDS is doing. Some of them are going, “You’ve got some open-source code. We’ll take that, thanks. Wow, these open standards principles that you’ve got, that makes complete sense for us. Yes, we’ll take it. We’ll shuffle it around to meet our local needs, and go off and do it.” That’s brilliant.

This job wasn’t my career goal. It just so happened that all the work that I’d been doing with standards, and with open source and stuff like that, suddenly this job seemed to fit perfectly. I’ve not had a career plan. I’ve just, sort of, jumped from thing to thing that I found interesting and has coincided with what I’ve been doing anyway, so, yes, it’s mostly luck.

Don’t get me wrong, ringtones are fun – but this is actually having a positive impact on people around the world. That’s great. I love it.

I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done. I’m proud of the departments who have invited us in, been sceptical and gone, “No, alright, yes, we’re going to make some changes to that,” and I’m proud of the fact that, when we go around to departments, they quite often…

I had a lovely chat with a department who said, “We’ve done this, and we’ve done that, and we’ve opened this, and we’ve opened that. How are we doing?” (Laughter) When I said, “My goodness, you are just streets ahead of everyone else,” they just beamed with pride. That was absolutely lovely.

Sarah Stewart:

For the uninitiated, can you explain what open standards are and what open source is?

Terence Eden:

They’re two very different things. Open standards means that, when you’ve got two computers that want to communicate, the language that they use is standardised. Everyone can understand it. We actually have a 48-point definition of open standards, which I’m not going to go onto here, but basically it’s the organisation which creates it. They create it in an open fashion. That means you can see the process by which it happens and that you can go in and make some changes.

They publish it for free – we don’t want government departments to be spending thousands of pounds on standards again and again – and that they have wide international adoption. That’s what open standards are. It just means that our computers can work with computers around the world for free.

Sarah Stewart:

Tell me about open source.

Terence Eden:  

People have the right to see how decisions are being made. Open source is about… In one sense, it’s about publishing the code that we use to run bits of the country. You can see how the GOV.UK website is built. All the code is there, but when we start saying, “Okay, this is how a decision is made, this is how systems integrate with each other,” we should be publishing that. There are several good reasons for doing this. Firstly is it increases trust. If you can see, if you’re a user and you can see how this code works, hopefully you will trust it more.

Sarah Stewart:

So how are we doing in the world stage on open standards?

Terence Eden:  

Good. Could do better, but I always think we can do better. We’re involved with some EU committees around the world, and we are one of the few governments which are on the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium’s advisory committee. Yes, we are going out, we are leading the way in certain areas, but what we’re seeing – and I think this is fascinating – is some countries leapfrogging us.

When I worked for the mobile phone industry, one of the problems with the UK was we had this huge investment in 2G networks, and then another huge investment in 3G networks. You would find countries in Africa which never had, even, landlines before, going, “We’ll just build a 3G network.” They don’t have any of that legacy investment, so they were able to leapfrog us in terms of speed, and connectivity, and price. GDS has been going for, is it, like, six years now?

Sarah Stewart:

Seven. I think we’re approaching our seventh.

Terence Eden:

Six, seven years, yes, so, naturally, we’ve got a lot of legacy stuff that we’ve built up. That means some processes which are a bit slow, and that’s fine, but then you see other countries who’ve skipped to the end. They said, “Okay, so we’ve seen all the mistakes GDS have made. We’ve seen what they’ve come out with at the end. We’ll just take that end piece and run with it.” Brilliant, that’s great. I think we have paved the way for lots of people, but there’s always more we can do.

Sarah Stewart:

So internationally, who do you think is doing good work - which governments are piquing your interest?

Terence Eden: 

I’ve got to give a shout out to New Zealand. I think they’re doing some amazing things, making their government more open, more transparent, getting on board the open source and the open standards train. That’s partly – that’s entirely – a testament to the people who work in New Zealand’s public service. They absolutely get it, and we’re seeing them spread out around. I know that some of them have gone off to Australia, which is great.

We’ve got some GDS alumna off in Canada, and now they are doing brilliant stuff. One of the lovely things about Canada is lots of their digital strategy is on GitHub, so you can just go along and say, “Hang on, you could do something better there,” or even as simple as, “There’s a spelling mistake there,” and fix it. I think that’s wonderful for openness.

Sarah Stewart:

You’re a bug hunter yourself, aren’t you?

Terence Eden:

I am, yes.

Sarah Stewart:

You’re in Google’s Hall of Fame.

Terence Eden:

My wife and I are, yes.

Sarah Stewart:

Oh both of you?

Terence Eden:

Yes. No – well, it was my wife who discovered the bug, and then I reported it, so we’re joint recipients, think.

Sarah Stewart:

What was the bug?

Terence Eden:

So Google Calendar, if you typed up a reminder to yourself which said, ‘Email boss@work.com about pay rise,’ if you put that in the subject line, it would automatically copy it to your boss’ calendar.

Sarah Stewart:

That’s a big bug, isn’t it?

Terence Eden:

Yes. Basically, yes that’s what happened, so we reported it and they fixed it, but finding bugs is good fun. If people find bugs in government, they should tell us, because we’ll fix them.

Sarah Stewart: 

So what does your vision of a future government look like, a successful future government, look like?

Terence Eden:

The government of the future – I hope – will be more open, and it will be more collaborative. I don’t want GDS to be a single government department. I want GDS to be everywhere. I want everyone to know what good looks like and how to code in the open.

I think the government of the future will have fewer barriers. Someone asked me the other day what department I was in, and I said, “GDS.” They went, “No, which subdivision of GDS?” I haven’t got a clue. I just work for GDS. Really, I work for Cabinet Office. If I’m completely honest, I work for the civil service.

If someone from DWP says, “I need some help with something,” I’m going to go and help them. Of course I will. If someone from anywhere in the country in the civil service says, “We need some help with this,” why wouldn’t I go and help them? I think we need to break down these barriers. If the best team at content design happens to be in Defra, or wherever, great, we should be learning from them. They should be teaching us.

I would love it not only if the government of the future was more open, and more transparent, and more open source, and used more open standards, but that the civil service was really just one civil service. It wasn’t just based in London, and that we can… It’s not based in London now, but that we felt free to move more or less anywhere within it and give people the help, and the advice, and the support that they need, and learn from anyone in any department, because we are not Defra, and DWP, and Department for Health and anything else. We’re not. We are one team, OneTeamGov.

Sarah Stewart: 

It’s really interesting that you've said that – we’re actually recording a podcast with Kit Collingwood from OneTeamGov and DWP fame in December. Okay final question – you’ve hacked your vacuum, your car is on Twitter, your house turns off when you leave it – what’s next?

Terence Eden: 

The next thing that I’m interested in is biohacking. So I’ve got some fake nails, just like fashion nails, and they’ve got a small bit of computer circuitry in, which is kind of like your Oyster card. It’s an NFC chip, and they glow when I put them around electromagnetic fields, so, if I’m on the tube and I put my hand against an Oyster card reader, my fingertips glow.

You can also put data on there, so I can transfer data from my fingertips. That’s kind of silly, but I’m fascinated by how we can enhance people.

What are the things that we can put on us and in us which will make us better? That’s what I’m interested in.

Sarah Stewart:

Terence, thank you so much.

Terence Eden:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Sarah Stewart:

That brings us to the end of this month’s podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and that you’ll listen again next month when we talk to another interesting person about interesting things. Until then, farewell.

 

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #1 - An interview with Neil Williams

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #1 - An interview with Neil Williams

September 28, 2018

 

 

In this episode, we interview outgoing head of GOV.UK Neil Williams about his time at GDS, learning about agile and scaling the nation's website.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Angus Montgomery: Hello and welcome to the very first episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS and for this episode I’m going to be talking to Neil Williams, who is the head of GOV.UK. And Neil is leaving GDS shortly for an exciting new job, so we’re going to be talking to him about that and also talking to him about his time at GDS, because he’s been here since the very beginning. So I hope you enjoy this episode and let’s go straight into the conversation.

Neil Williams: I'm going to Croydon Council. So leaving not only GDS-

Angus Montgomery: South London?

Neil Williams: South London. South London is the place to be, I have to say. Yes, not only leaving GDS, but leaving the Civil Service actually, because local government is not the Civil Service of course, to go and work in Croydon as Chief Digital Officer for the council there. They've got a lot of ambition, and it’s a really exciting time for Croydon. People laugh when I say that.

Angus Montgomery: I just laughed as well. I didn’t mean to.

Neil Williams:  Croydon has this reputation that is completely unwarranted, and we’re going to prove the world wrong. It’s changing massively. It’s already gone through a lot of change. You're probably aware of some stuff. It’s got a Boxpark. There’s a lot of reporting around the Westfield/Hammerson development that might be happening, which we very much hope is happening. Also Croydon Tech City. So Croydon’s got a lot of growth in the tech industry, tech sector. Fantastic companies starting up and scaling up in Croydon, and that’s all part of the story.

Plus the stuff that’s more in my wheelhouse, that I've been doing here in GDS around transforming services. Making the public services that Croydon provides to residents and business to be as good as they should be. As good as everything else that people expect in their day to lives using digital services these days.

Angus Montgomery: So not much on your plate then?

Neil Williams: It’s quite a big job. I'm excited about it. There’s a lot about it that’s new, which is kind of giving me a new lease of energy, the fact that I've got this big challenge to face and lots of learning to do.

Which reminds me a lot about how I felt when I first working with GDS in fact. Just how exciting I found the prospect of coming and working for this organisation, and being part of this amazing revolution. I'm feeling that again actually about the job in Croydon, [00:02:33] about the work to be done there.

It seems like the right time. It’s a perfect time and place, where I am in my career, those things coming together. It’s a really good match. So it came up, and I put in for it, and lo and behold I am now Chief Digital Officer in Croydon Council from mid-October.

Angus Montgomery: You’ve been at GDS since before the beginning, haven’t you? Seven, eight years?

Neil Williams:  Yes, I was working it out this morning. It’s seven years and two months. I was 34 when I started working in GDS. I'm 42 now. I just had my birthday last week.

Angus Montgomery: Full disclosure.

Neil Williams: Yes. That’s maybe too much information to be sharing. I didn’t have grey hair when I started. My youngest child was just born, and he’s nearly eight now. So yes, it’s been a really big part of my life.

Angus Montgomery: So you can track your late 30s and early 40s through images of you standing in front of number 10?

Neil Williams: Yes, and unfortunately quite a few embarrassing pictures of me on the GDS flicker. (Laughter) There have been a few regrettable outfits for celebrations and milestones launching GOV.UK, and celebrating GOV.UK birthdays, where looking back on it I may not have worn those things if I had known it was going to be on the internet forever. (Laughter)

Angus Montgomery: Now you say that, there’s an image of you… I'm trying to remember. I think it’s at the Design Museum, when GOV.UK won the Designs of the Year, and you're wearing a Robocop t-shirt. (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Yes, I am. I can tell that story if you like. That’s one of my proudest GDS moments, I think. Maybe we will get to that later. Do you want me to do it now?

Angus Montgomery: Well, no. Let us know where that came from, because this is…

Well, just as a bit of context, because I've gone straight into that, but you’ve been head of GOV.UK since the beginning, and in 2012, shortly after GOV.UK launched, it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award, which is an incredible accolade. I can’t remember what it beat, but I think it beat several…

 That’s one of those awards where they judge things like buildings, and cars, and new products, and mad graphic design. So for a government website to win that award was really incredible, I think.

Neil Williams: Yes. Actually, we were talking about it the other day, and Mark Hurrell, the head designer on GOV.UK, he said it’s actually the first time a website ever won that award, which I had completely forgotten. Yes, it was amazing. That was 2013.

We had launched GOV.UK in 2012, as in replacing Directgov and Business Link, which were the previous big super sites for public services. Then we were well into the next phase, which was shutting down and replacing all of the websites of departments of state.

I was very much working on that bit of it at the time. My head was down and working very attentively, in this fairly crazy timescale, to shut down those websites, and starting to look at how we were going to start closing down the websites of 350 arms-length bodies. A huge project.

In the midst of that, in the midst of that frantic busy period, someone approached me. It was Tom Loosemore, Etienne Pollard. One of those early GDS leaders. Saying, “Oh, there’s an award ceremony. We’ve been nominated for an award, and we need some people to go. Can you go to it?”

Angus Montgomery: “We need some people to go.” That’s an attractive… (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Yes. It was just like, “We need a few people to make sure we’re going to be represented there.”

Angus Montgomery: “To fill the seats.” (Laughter)

Neil Williams: I now know that they knew that we were going to win, but I didn’t know that, at all, at the time, and I didn’t really think much of it. “Oh, yes, fine. Yes, I will go along to that. That’s no problem at all.”

I think it was the same day. I'm not sure whether it was that same day or a different day when I was given notice, but anyway, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t dress up for the occasion. So I rock up to the Design Museum in my jeans and in my Robocop t-shirt, an OCP logo on it.

The evening included quite a lot of free alcohol. It was quite a glitzy affair, and I was definitely under-dressed for the occasion, but I thought, “That’s fine. We’re just here to be part of an audience.” Hanging around at the back, having the free canapes, partaking of the plentiful free wine that was being distributed.

Then Griff Rhys Jones, who was presenting the award, gets up on stage and announces the winners in each category, and we won our category. Much triumphant jubilation and celebration.

Then went on to reveal that we won the whole thing. We won the Design of the Year Award as a whole. Which then led to this photo call. By which point I was quite drunk as well. I had no idea this was going to happen.

Yes, so there’s that famous photo of a bunch of GDS people accepting the award, all quite smartly dressed, apart from me letting the side down with my Robocop t-shirt.

Angus Montgomery: Tell me how you got involved in this thing in the first place. You’ve been in the Civil Service before, but you're not a career civil servant, are you? Or you hadn’t been.

Neil Williams: Well, yes. I would like to think of myself as not being a career civil servant. I started in the private sector, in a communications publishing agency. It was a magazine agency.

I thought I wanted to be a journalist actually. I did English at university. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Went into publishing. Was passionate about publishing and the power of the printed word. Distributing information to people. Equipping them with information. Informing people and so forth.

I went into corporate publishing, as a way to learn about publishing, but whilst I was working for that company the internet was becoming a bigger deal, a bigger thing.

I was also mucking around in my spare time with comedy websites. That was known by my employers, who then said, as they were starting to think about, “How do we get in on this?” they asked me if I wanted to run the London office of their new digital offering to their clients.

I leapt at the chance. That was a really good leg up for me. That’s where I learnt about digital, about building websites. So that was a great place, where I learnt…

I said I wanted to be in publishing and journalism. The information is power thing excited me, and of course doing that digitally, doing that online, massively more so. More empowering people.

I fell in love instantly with the immediacy of what you get with publishing to the web, and providing services over the web, and getting the feedback, and being able to improve based on the fact that you can see in real time what users are doing. That’s been my passion ever since. After a few years of doing that…

That is now a dwindling small part of my career, when you look back on it, so it’s probably true to say that I am a career civil servant. A few years in a digital agency. Then I wanted to see the other side of things, and be client side, and see something through to its outcomes, rather than just build a thing and hand it over. I joined the Civil Service. I joined the government communications profession.

Angus Montgomery: I know it well.

Neil Williams: And my first gig was in the Department for Trade and Industry, as it was then, as an assistant information officer. A young, eager civil servant.

There were some digital elements to that job, but actually quite a lot of my earliest Civil Service gig was going to Number 10 every week to do the grid meeting, which is the Alastair Campbell era. It’s still the process now.

And I was moving around within the department. So there’s an eight-year period, which I'm not going to go into in any detail,where I moved around between different departments, doing digital things.

I worked my way up the greasy pole of the Civil Service. From a web manager, managing a bit of a website and looking after the content and the information architecture, through to running whole teams, running the website, intranet, social media side of things.

During those years I did a lot of work on product development, around online consultation tools and digital engagement platforms. And lots of frustration actually. So this brings us to the beginning of the GDS story.

Angus Montgomery: This is the 2010 Martha Lane Fox bombshell?

Neil Williams: Yes. The old way, the traditional way, and this is pretty common not just in government but everywhere, websites sprung out of being a thing led by communications teams. “It’s just another channel for us to do our communications.”

And it is, but it is also, as we all now know, the way that people do their business and transact. People come to your website to do a thing, to use a service, to fulfil a need. It took a long time for the Civil Service to recognise that.

For many years myself and others in the digital communications teams within departments were getting increasingly frustrated. A lone voice really. Trying within our departments to show them the data that we had and go, “Look, people are coming for things that we’re not providing them with. We need to do a better job of this.”

A lot of that falling on deaf ears, not getting prioritised in the way that it needed to, and also clearly fragmented across thousands of websites, across all of these organisations.

A lot of great work was done before GDS, and this story has been told on the History of GDS series of blog posts, which if people haven’t seen are really well worth looking at.

Tom Loosemore has talked about this before, about standing on the shoulders of giants. There was enormous effort, over many, many years, to digitise government, to centralise things, to put users first.

Directgov and Business Link were the current incarnations of that, of a service-led approach, but it was just a small proportion of the overall service offering from government, and it was still really quite comms focused. The conversations were about reach, and there was advertising to try and promote the existence of these channels, etc.

Lots of it was written from the perspective of the department trying to tell people what they should do, rather than understanding what it is that people are trying to do and then designing things that meet those needs.

So GDS. In 2010, this is a really well-told story, and people are pretty familiar with it now, but 2010 Martha Lane Fox was commissioned to review the government’s website, particularly Directgov. She took a broader remit, and looked at the whole thing, and, in summary, said, “Start again.”

Angus Montgomery: ‘Revolution, not evolution’.

Neil Williams: ‘Revolution, not evolution’. Yes, that was the title.

Angus Montgomery: And everyone at GDS, or who has been at GDS, has said, like Tom, that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and huge amounts of work was done beforehand, but why do you think Martha’s report was such a turning point? Because it was, because it led to a huge amount of change.

Neil Williams: Yes. It’s a really pithy, succinct little letter. It’s not reams and reams of paper. It was just quite a simple call to action really. Which was to say, “You need to take ownership of the user experience, in a new organisation, and empower a new leader, and organisation under that leader, to do that, to take a user-led approach.” That was the different thing. Take a user-led approach, and to use the methods that are being used everywhere used.

Government had not yet really caught up to what was going on in the wider technology industry around ways of working, agile and so forth, around working iteratively, experimentally, and proving things early. Rather than upfront requirement specs, and then out comes something at the end which you then later discover doesn’t work.

Those were the two things really. It was that focus on user needs, and work in that different way, which was bringing skills into government that hadn’t been here before. Design, and user research, and software development skills that hadn’t previously been done in-house. It had always been outsourced.

Angus Montgomery: So it was a clear and simple strategy, or strategic direction, from Martha Lane Fox’s report. There was a clear mandate. This has been talked about a lot, that we had, or GDS had, Francis Maude backing it at a very high level, and giving it the mandate to-

Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. That was the other thing. It wasn’t just Martha’s letter. It was absolutely a kind of perfect storm of political will and the timing being right.

Yes, the Martha letter came out when I was Head of Digital Comms, or some title like that, at the Department for Business. I had moved around between departments. Ended up back in the Department for Business again.

It was advocating something pretty radical, that would be a threat really to the digital comms view, to a comms-led view of controlling our channels. That was an interesting situation to find myself in, right?

I was reading this stuff from Martha and thinking, “This is brilliant. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is absolutely the right thing.” But then internally my job required me to do some more maybe circumspect briefing to the minister and to the director of comms about, “Actually, well, this is a risk to us.”

So I was doing both of those things. I was talking internally about the positives of what this could mean for government, but the risks to our organisation, but publicly I blogged…

I thought, “This is brilliant.” I blogged enthusiastically, because I had a personal blog at the time, about my thoughts on how this could be the beginning of something really exciting.

That’s the thing that led me to meeting Tom Loosemore. Tom Loosemore, who as we all know is one of the early architects of GDS, saw my blog post, and got in touch and said, “Let’s have a chat.” And that’s how my journey into GDS started. It started by answering that email from Tom Loosemore and going for pizza with him.

Angus Montgomery: The power of blogging.

Neil Williams: Yes. We had a chat over pizza, where he was talking about his ideas for getting an alpha. Getting a team together that could produce something quickly, as a sort of throwaway prototype, that would show a different way of working.

Tom was saying stuff that was exciting but contained many new words. (Laughter) He was talking about alphas and agile ways of working. I don’t know what these things are.

Angus Montgomery: Now we’re at a stage, at GDS and throughout government, where agile is a touchstone of how we work, and it’s accepted that doing things in agile is doing things better, and there’s lots of opportunity for people to learn how that works, and what that means, and apply that to the things that they do, but at the time, as you said, this didn’t really exist in government. You, as someone who had worked in government, probably didn’t know what agile was.

Neil Williams: No.

Angus Montgomery: How did you learn about it, and how did you know that this was the right approach?

Neil Williams: A mix of reading up on it. Initially just going home and Googling those new words and finding out about these ways of working. But also it immediately spoke to me.

I had been through several years of several projects where I had felt just how awful and frustrating it is to build websites in a waterfall way. I've got some very difficult experiences that I had at [BEIS], when we rebuilt the website there, and it was project managed by a very thorough project manager in a waterfall way.

I was the Senior Responsible Officer, I think, or Senior User I think it is in PRINCE2 language, for the website. As the website was progressing we had a requirements document upfront, all that way of working. We were specifying, with as much predicting the future and guesswork as we possibly can, a load of stuff, and writing it down, around, ‘This is what the website needs to do. This is what the publishing system needs to do’. Then handing that over to a supplier, who then starts to try and interpret that and build that.

During that process, seeing as the thing is emerging, and we’re doing the user acceptance testing and all of that stuff on it, that this is just far away from the thing that I had in my head. So there’s already a gap between the written word and then the meaning that goes into the heads of the people who are then building that thing.

Then also all of the change that’s occurring at the same time. Whilst we are building that thing the world is not staying still, and there is an enormous amount of change in our understanding around what we want that thing to do.

Trying to get those changes in, but facing the waterfall approach, rigid change control process, and just feeling like I'm banging my head against a brick wall. It was really frustrating. Then when I…

Back to the question about how do I learn about agile, and some of these new concepts, it was really only when I got in there. I knew what the bad thing felt like, and I knew that that wasn’t right. I knew that you absolutely need to embrace the change as part of the process, embrace learning as part of the process of delivering something as live and ever changing as a website.

Then I came in as a product manager, initially part-time, and then full-time when GDS was properly established and able to advertise a role, and started working with Pete Herlihy, who is still here now in GDS.

Angus Montgomery: Yes, on Notify.

Neil Williams: Yes, he’s lead product manager on Notify now, but back then he was delivery manager.

Again, Tom Loosemore was making stuff happen behind the scenes. He was the person who introduced me and Pete. He said something along the lines of, “Neil’s the guy who knows what needs to happen, and Pete’s the guy who knows how to make it happen. You two should talk.” So we did.

I learnt a lot of what I now know from working with Pete and working as we then built out a team. Working with some terrific talented software developers, designers, content designers, and so forth, and user researchers, in a multidisciplinary way.

Learning on the job what it meant to be a product manager. Obviously, reading up about it. I went on a few courses, I think, too. But mostly learning on the job.

Zooming back out a little bit to the GDS career experience, I've learnt so much here. I've never learnt as much probably in the whole of the rest of my career as I've learnt in my time here.

Angus Montgomery: Because that first year was learning about agile, putting a team together. Learning how to build this thing. Learning how to land it. At what stage did you realise, “Oh, we’ve done this now. This thing is landing, and it’s getting big, and it’s successful. Oh, wow. We’re in charge of a piece of national infrastructure now”?

Neil Williams: That’s an interesting question. I always knew it would. We knew what we were building at the start. We knew we were building something-

Angus Montgomery: So you never had any doubts that this was going to work?

Neil Williams: Oh, God, yes. We had absolute doubt. The prevailing view when we started was that, “This will not work.”

Not internally. Internally, it was certainly a stretch goal. (Laughter) It was ambitious, and it felt a little bit impossible, but in a really exciting way. That is one of the key ingredients of success, is you want your team to feel like something is only just about doable. (Laughter) There’s nothing more motivating than a deadline and a nearly impossible task. Also a bunch of naysayers saying, “This will never work.” And that really united us as a team.

Angus Montgomery: So what then happened? Because I think we talk quite a lot about the early years, and a lot has been written, obviously, and GDS was blogging like crazy in those days about the early stages, and how quickly you built the thing, and how quickly you transitioned onto it.

One thing that we have talked about as GDS, but probably not in as great detail, is what happened when it then got big, and you had to deal with issues of scale, and you had to deal with issues of…

Something a lot of people on GOV.UK have talked to me about is tech debt. That you built this thing very quickly and you had quite a bit of tech debt involved. How did you deal with that? Presumably you always knew this was a problem you were going to have to face.

Neil Williams: Yes, to a degree. That 14 people that did a bit on alpha scaled very rapidly to being 140 people. There were lots of teams working in parallel, and building bits of software just in time, like I was just talking about. Just in time for…

“We’re not going to build anything we don’t have to build. We’re just going to build what’s necessary to achieve the transition, to shut these other websites down and bring them all in.”

But that approach means you're laying stuff on top of other stuff, and things were getting built by different teams in parallel, adding to this growing code base, and in some cases therefore duplicative stuff happening. Where maybe we’ve built one publishing system for publishing a certain kind of format of content, another publishing system for publishing another kind of format of content.

Then in the process we’ve ended up with two different ways of doing something like attachments, asset management. Then we’ve got complexity, and we’ve got bits of code that different teams don’t know how to change without quite a steep learning curve, and so on. And that was the case everywhere.

Given the pace of how fast we were going, and how ambitious the timescales were for shutting down what turned out to be 1,882 websites… (Laughter) Exactly. It was incredible.

We knew, yes. We knew. It was talked about. It was done knowingly, that, “We are making things here that we’re going to have to come back to. That are going to be good enough for now, and they’re going to achieve what we need to achieve, but they will need fixing, and they will need replacing and consolidating.”

So we absolutely knew, and there was much talk of it. Quite a lot of it got written down at the time as ‘This is some tech debt that we’re going to definitely need to come back to’. Yes, we weren’t blind to that fact, but I think the degree of it, and the amount of time it took to resolve it, was slightly unexpected.

That’s partly because of massive personnel change as well. Straight off the back of finishing… Well, I say finishing. GOV.UK is never finished. Let’s just get that out there. Always be iterating.

GOV.UK’s initial build, and the transition, and the shutting down, the transition story of shutting down those 1,882 websites, had an end date, and that end date felt like a step change to many people.

As in lots of people came into GDS in those early days to do the disruptive thing. To do the start-up thing. To do Martha’s revolution. Then at that moment of, “Actually, we’ve now shut down the last website,” to lots of those people that felt like, “Now we’re going into some other mode. Now we’re going into actually we’re just part of government now, aren’t we? I don’t know. Do I necessarily want to be part of that?” So there was some natural drifting away of some people.

Plus, also, the budget shrank at that point. The project to do the transition was funded and came to an end. So actually we were going to go down to an operational smaller team anyway. So a combination of attrition, of people leaving anyway, plus the fact that we did need to get a bit smaller.

Also, at that time, that’s when the early founders of GDS left. Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, Ben Terrett left around that time. Which also led to some other people going, “Well, actually, I came here for them. I came here with them. And I'm leaving too.”

So that meant that we had the tech debt to deal with at a time when we also had quite a lot of new stuff. We had all of this unknown and not terribly well-documented code, that was built really quickly, by lots of different people, in different ways. Plus people who weren’t part of that joining the team, and looking at it and going, “Oh, what have we got here? Where do I start with this?” (Laughter)

So it took a long time. I think it’s common in agile software development to underestimate how long things might take. It’s an industry problem that you need to account for.

Angus Montgomery: Well, this is the interesting thing, because it feels to me as an observer that there have been three main stages of GOV.UK so far. There’s the build and transition, which we’ve talked about quite a lot. There’s the growth and sustainability years, I suppose, where you were sorting out the tech debt, and you were making this thing sustainable, and you were dealing with departmental requests, and you were putting in structures, and process, and maturing it.

Now it feels like we’re in a new stage, where a lot of that structural stuff has been sorted out, and that means you can do really exciting things. Like the work that Kate Ivey-Williams, and Sam Dub, and their team have been doing on end-to-end services. The work that’s been going on to look at voice activation on GOV.UK. And the work that’s been done that Nicky Zachariou and her team have been looking at, machine learning, structuring the content. And it feels like now, having sorted out those fundamentals, there’s a whole load of stuff we can do.

Neil Williams: Yes, absolutely. We’re iterating wildly again, I would say. (Laughter) We’re back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly again.

Some of the stuff we’re doing now is greenfield stuff. Again, a lot of the ideas we had way back when, in the early days of GDS, about making the publishing system really intuitive, and giving data intelligence to publishers, so that they can understand how services are performing, and see where to prioritise, and get really rich insights about how their stuff as a department is working for users, we’re getting to that now.

We’re starting to rebuild our publishing tools with a proper user-centric design. Which we didn’t do enough of, because we had to focus on the end users more in the early days. It’s great to be doing that now.

We’re also deleting some stuff, which were the mistakes that I made. (Laughter) Which feels good on my way out. Some of the things that we did, that have stuck around way longer than we intended them to, are now being deleted. We’re now able to go, “Actually, we know now, we’ve known for a while, that this isn’t the right solution,” and we’re able to change things more radically.

Yes, we’re doing really exciting stuff. Thanks for mentioning it.

Angus Montgomery: What are you most excited about? Because Jen Allum, who was lead product manager on GOV.UK for a couple of years, I think, she’s taking over now as head of GOV.UK after you leave. What are you most excited about seeing her and the team do? What do you think is the biggest challenge that they face?

Neil Williams: I'm thrilled that Jen is taking over the job. She obviously knows the product, knows the team really, really well, and she’s absolutely brilliant.

There is some incredibly exciting stuff happening right now, which I will be sad not to be here for. You mentioned one of them. That’s the step-by-step navigation product, which is our solution for, “How do you create an end-to-end holistic service that meets a whole user need?”

If you’ve been following GDS at all, which if you're listening to this podcast you probably have, then you will have seen stuff from Lou Downe, Kate Ivey-Williams, many other people, around end-to-end services and what we mean by services and service design. Around good services being verbs and bad services being nouns.

Government has the habit of creating schemes, and initiatives, and forms, and giving them names, and then they stick around for a very long time. Users end up even having to learn those names in some cases.

The classic example is, “I want to SORN my car.” What the hell does that even mean? Whereas actually what they want to do is take their car off the road. It’s an actual thing that an actual human wants to do.

Nearly every interaction or task that you have with government requires more than one thing. You need to look at some content. You might need to transact. You might need to fill in a form. You might need to go and do some stuff that’s not with government. You might need to read something, understand what the rules are, and then go and do something offline.

If you're a childminder you’ve got a step there, which is you’ve got to go and actually set up your space and get it inspected. Then you come back, and there’s more to do with government.

Those things need setting out clearly for people. It’s still the case now. Despite all of the great work that we’ve done on GOV.UK to improve all of this stuff, it’s still far too much the case that people have to do all of that work themselves. They have to piece together the fragments of content, and transactions, and forms that they need to do.

So what we are doing with our step-by-step navigation product is that’s a product output of a lot of thinking that’s been happening in GDS for many years, around, “How do you join services together, end-to-end, around the user?”

We’ve got that product. It’s been tested. It works really, really well. To look at you might just look at it and go, “Well, there’s not much to that, is there? That’s just some numbered steps and some links.”

Yes, it is, but getting something that looks that simple, and that really works, is actually a ton of work, and we’ve put in a huge amount of work into proving that, and testing that, and making sure that really works. Making it as simple as it is.

The lion’s share of that work is actually in the service design, and in the content design, going, “Let’s map out what is… Well, first of all let’s understand what the users need. Then let’s map out what are the many things that come together, in what order, in order to meet that need.”

Angus Montgomery: Before we wrap up I just wanted to ask you to give a couple of reflections on your time at GDS. What’s the thing you're most proud of, or what was your proudest moment?

Neil Williams: That’s tricky. I've been here a long time. I've done a lot of… I say I've done a lot of good stuff. I've been around whilst some really good stuff has happened. (Laughter)

Angus Montgomery: You’ve been in the room. (Laughter)

Neil Williams: Right. I've had a little bit to do with it. It’s got to be the initial build, I think. Other than wearing a Robocop t-shirt to a very formal event, which I'm still proud of, it’s got to be the initial build of GOV.UK and that was the thing that I was directly involved with and it was just the most ridiculous fun I've ever had. I can’t imagine ever doing something as important, or fast paced, or ridiculous as that again.

There were moments during that when… Actually, I don’t think I can even tell that story probably. (Laughter) There were some things that happened just as a consequence of the speed that we were going. There are funny memories. That’s all I'm going to say about that. If you want to-

Angus Montgomery: Corner Neil in a pub or café in South London if you want to hear that story in the future.

What was the scariest moment? Or what was the moment when you thought, “Oh, my God, this might not actually work. This thing might fall apart”? Or were there moments like that?

Neil Williams: I don't know. No, I think we’ve always had the confidence, because of the talent that we’ve brought in, the capability and the motivation that everyone has.

When bad things have happened, when we’ve had security threats or any kind of technical failures, just the way that this team scrambles, and the expertise that we’ve got, just means that I'm always confident that it’s going to be okay. People are here in GDS because they really care,and they’re also incredibly capable. The best of the best.

I'm not saying that’s an organisation design or a process that I would advocate, that people have to scramble when things fail, but in those early days, when GOV.UK was relatively newly launched, and we were going through that transition of from being built to run, those were the days where maybe the operations weren’t in place yet for dealing with everything that might come at us.

There was a lot of all hands to the pump scrambling in those days, but it always came right and was poetry to watch. (Laughter) Those moments would actually be the moments where you would be most proud of the team and to be part of it. When it comes down to it these people are really amazing.

Angus Montgomery: Finally, what’s the thing you are going to miss the most?

Neil Williams: Well, it’s the people, isn’t it? That’s a cheesy thing to say, but it’s genuinely true. I've made some amazing friends here. Some people who I hope I can call lifelong friends. Many people who have already left GDS, who I'm still in touch with and see all the time.

It’s incredible coming into work and working with people who are so likeminded, and so capable, and so trusting of each other, and so funny. I laugh all the time. I come into work and it’s fun. It’s so much fun.

And we’re doing something so important, and we’re supporting each other. The culture is just so good, and the people are what makes that. Cheesy as it may be, it’s you Angus. I'm going to miss you.

Angus Montgomery: It’s all about the people. Oh, thank you. That was a leading question. (Laughter)

Neil Williams, thank you so much for doing that and best of luck in the future. We will miss you lots.

Neil Williams:  Thanks very much. Thank you.

Angus Montgomery: So that wraps up the very first Government Digital Service podcast. I hope you enjoyed it - we’re aiming to do lots more episodes of this, we’re aiming to do around 1 episode a month and we’re going to be talking to lots of exciting and interesting people both inside GDS and outside GDS and we’re going to be talking about things like innovation and digital transformation and user-centred design and all sorts of interesting things like that, so if you’d like to listen to future episodes please go to wherever it is you get your podcasts and subscribe to listen to us in the future. And I hope you enjoyed that episode and I hope you listen to more. Thankyou very much.